Henry James, 50, was released from a Louisiana prison last year after serving 30 years for a rape DNA proved he didn’t commit. If he successfully navigates the state’s compensation process, he’ll receive $8,333 compensation for each year of wrongful incarceration. As reported here, State Representative Herbert Dixon (D) had sought to increase the state’s compensation from the current cap of $250,000 to $500,000, but the effort has failed for a second time.
Exonerees in the state are paid in installments of up to $25,000 per year but first must file petitions for a judge’s eligibility order, then present the order to the legislature for inclusion in the state appropriations bill…and do this annually. Private attorneys receive up to 30 percent to assist in the process. Rep. Dixon hopes to streamline this and is also seeking ways to fund the compensation.
According to the Innocence Project here 23 states offer no legislated compensation for wrongful incarceration. Among those that do, many fall short of the compensation recommended by Congress and endorse by President George W. Bush: $50,000 per year, with an additional $50,00 for each year on death row.
Many states providing compensation have burdensome procedures that delay payment. When exonerees are forced to hire attorneys to work through the process, their award can be diminished by as much as 30 percent.
Restrictions in some states do not reflect current understandings of the causes and contributors to wrongful conviction. For example, compensation is sometimes denied if the wrongfully imprisoned confessed. We now know that more than 20 percent of DNA-proven exonerees confessed to crimes not committed, made self-incriminating comments, or pled guilty to crimes they did not commit, and we understand the troubling conditions that can prompt these false indicators of guilt.
Many would say that no amount of money can compensate for years stolen from one’s life, but for those who must rebuild after years or decades in prison, financial assistance is not only fair but critical to successful reentry into society and a sustainable life.
In Louisiana, twenty people were currently eligible for compensation for wrongful incarceration. That’s not a significant voting block. But Representative Dixon has compassion for those who have been victimized by the state, even if the error was unintentional. Indeed, how a government acknowledges and compensates for its errors that harm its citizens goes beyond those harmed. It’s a reflection of a nation’s character. In the United States it’s a measure of our commitment to the fundamental promise of justice for all.