Compensation for Exonerees: A Fundamental Right?

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When Jabbar Collins was arrested in 1994 for the murder of Rabbi Abraham Pollack, no one believed him when he said he was innocent. Now, after 16 years in a maximum security prison and three years following his exoneration, Collins is slated to receive $3 million from the state of New York in one of the largest wrongful conviction settlements ever awarded by the state.

Collins is one of the lucky ones. Only 30 states and the District of the Columbia provide compensation to exonerated criminals. A total of 1,405 innocent people have been wrongfully imprisoned since 1989. In 46 percent of these cases, the government and its officials were at fault. Official misconduct (police, prosecutors, or other government officials abusing their power) is responsible for putting 647 innocent people behind bars over the past 25 years. Despite these numbers, the road to compensation is far from easy.

Even in the states that have compensation laws on the books, the process for receiving money is fairly difficult, requiring years of waiting and expensive legal battles. On average there is a minimum of a three year wait (as in Collins’ case). Additionally, a successful lawsuit depends on the person’s ability to prove that their wrongful conviction was caused by intentional misconduct. This requires naming a responsible party such as a prosecutor, police officer, or witness. It also excludes compensation for legal technicalities and unintentional errors made during the original investigation and trial.

If that isn’t bad enough, compensation laws vary widely state-by-state, and most of the money that exonerees receive is taxed. Some states deny compensation to any exoneree that falsely confessed or pleaded guilty, while others deny money to those who were exonerated without the use of DNA testing. Florida refuses to compensate anyone that has an unrelated prior offense under its “clean hands” provision, and Montana offers no money at all, instead offering educational aid for state or community college. New Hampshire offers a flat maximum of $20,000 no matter how many years an exoneree spent wrongfully imprisoned.

According to federal standards, exonerees should receive up to $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment and $100,000 per year spent on death row, but these standards are currently met by only 5 states. More often than not, exonerees receive small amounts–if anything at all–which do not even begin to cover the damages they suffered as a direct result of their wrongful confinement.

One thing that all exonerees almost uniformly receive is the horrific experience of being falsely imprisoned. Most suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, institutionalization, and depression as a result of years they spent behind bars. They have to endure the censure for a crime they never committed and the psychological damage of being branded a criminal by the public.

Even after an exoneree is released from confinement, the consequences of their imprisonment has the potential to taint every aspect of their lives. For some exonerees, half a lifetime has passed them by; family members have died, children have grown up, and spouses have moved on with their lives while they spent years behind bars. Others suffer physically from years spent with sub-par prison health care, while others suffer professionally as they lack the job experience, vocational training, and educational skills that are needed to secure a job.

Perhaps worst of all is the fact that their wrong conviction is not even immediately expunged from their records upon exoneration and release, often appearing on background checks and inhibiting their ability to fully reintegrate into society years later. Despite all this, most states do not provide transitional services for exonerees, leaving a large portion without a means of transportation, a source of income, or even a place to call home upon release.

It seems rather counter-intuitive to not provide these people with immediate and automatic compensation. They have clearly suffered unjustly at the hands of a flawed criminal justice system and it seems only natural that the government should take on the responsibility to help them rebuild their lives, regardless of liability.

The fact that these people are left with no other option but to sue for the compensation they rightfully deserve is adding insult to injury. They have already proved their innocence-they would be in jail otherwise–and while you cannot put a price on freedom, exonerees should not have to suffer through an expensive, protracted legal battle in order to be compensated for the years they spent unjustly serving time for a crime they did not commit.

[Innocence Project] [National Registry of Exonerations]

Nicole Roberts (@NicoleR5901) a student at American University majoring in Justice, Law, and Society with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. She has a strong interest in law and policymaking, and is active in homeless rights advocacy as well as several other social justice movements. Contact Nicole at

Featured image courtesy of [Luigi Caterino via Flickr]

Nicole Roberts
Nicole Roberts a student at American University majoring in Justice, Law, and Society with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. She has a strong interest in law and policymaking, and is active in homeless rights advocacy as well as several other social justice movements. Contact Nicole at



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