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  • Writer's pictureBijan T

Who pays for wrongful convictions?

Updated: Apr 19

Miguel Solorio and Sarah Pace holding up a jersey

Exonerated December 2023, Miguel Solorio must wait until March to receive compensation.

A Monetary Cost

When a man or woman is wrongfully convicted, many people pay a severe price. Victims of the crime are unable to obtain closure due to the criminal still being out on the streets. Attorneys and prosecutors use up their own time appealing the case and filing writs of habeas corpus. The defendant’s family and friends suffer immense grief for practically losing the defendant, the only form of communication being the occasional phone call and even rarer prison visit. The defendant pays the ultimate price, losing their lives and livelihoods, which they can never rebuild. 

However, there is also a pure monetary cost to wrongful convictions and exonerations. Exonerees have a few ways to achieve monetary compensation for their wasted years and destroyed lives. In this article, we will be covering the monetary side of wrongful convictions, and who foots the bill for wrongful conviction compensation.

Laws on Wrongful Conviction Compensation

Each state and the federal government has their own laws regarding wrongful conviction compensation. In 28 U.S. Code § 2513, the federal government establishes standardized compensation for wrongful convictions. Exonerees are given $50,000 for each year they spend in prison, or $100,000 for each year they spend on death row. To earn this money, they must prove by preponderance of the evidence that they are factually innocent of the crime.

Wrongful conviction codes for states vary far and wide. As of recently, 38 states plus the District of Columbia have wrongful conviction compensation laws. For monetary compensation, only 23 states plus the District of Columbia exceed $50,000 in wrongful conviction. The District of Columbia has the highest payout to exonerees, sitting at $200,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, and New Hampshire has one of the lowest, with a cap of $20,000 in total. 8 states provide additional wrongful conviction compensation for being on death row, attempting to recompense defendants not only for their increased mental suffering of facing imminent death, but also for the extreme humiliation and suffering associated with simply being held in a death row facility. 12 states still do not have a clear, standardized path for exonerees to obtain monetary compensation for their state-inflicted suffering. 

There are also some non-monetary compensations that form part of wrongful conviction compensation, illustrating one of the benefits of wrongful conviction compensation laws. So far, 20 states provide non-monetary compensation to exonerees. This compensation provides assistance in the form of reintegration, which can prove invaluable to exonerees. This reintegration aid includes assistance with tuition, child support, healthcare, employment, housing, counseling, and other, more specific programs and services. 

Suing the State

The other pathway for exonerees to obtain wrongful conviction compensation from the government is through suing the state. This pathway can result in payouts exceeding wrongful conviction compensation laws, and provide compensation in states where no laws exist; however, exonerees often have to wait years to obtain even a single dollar of this relief, all the while spending money on lawyers and attempting to reintegrate into society. This is often highly infeasible, with exonerees having to resort to GoFundMe’s and reliance on friends and family to even survive (for a specific case, see NPR’s article).

Who pays? How much?

In the end, it is the average American taxpayer who foots the monetary bill for wrongful convictions. As of January 4, $983,767,012 has been paid out to exonerees. This naive estimate fails to include the actual cost of imprisoning these exonerees. With 31,078 total years lost since 1989 and a yearly cost of at least $31,286 per prisoner, imprisoning exonerees has cost at least $972,306,308, bringing the grand total up to at least $1,956,073,320. And this doesn’t even come close to counting the tens of thousands of prisoners who spent their whole lives or still spend their lives in prison for a crime they never committed, or exonerees who were never paid (~58% of all exonerees).


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