A conviction may be considered wrongful for two general reasons. First, the person convicted is/was factually innocent of the charges against them. Second, there were procedural errors that violated the convicted person’s constitutional rights.

When a wrongful conviction is based on possible factual innocence, this can sometimes be determined by using post-conviction DNA testing. This testing is instrumental in contributing to the increased discovery of wrongful convictions, largely because biological evidence that was retained in cases from the “pre-DNA” era can be tested using new technology and methods.

Additionally, advancements in DNA technology have increased opportunities for DNA testing. An example of this would be how as DNA analysis of aged, degraded, limited, and/or otherwise compromised biological evidence has improved, samples that were previously considered to be inconclusive results could be reanalyzed with new DNA testing methods.

Some other contributing factors include, but may not be limited to:

  • Lack accountability for law enforcement and prosecutors;
  • Unreliable and/or mistaken eyewitness accounts and/or identifications;
  • False and/or misleading forensic science;
  • Jailhouse informants; and
  • Lack of quality legal defense for all defendants, not just those who can afford a team of private defense attorneys.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than half of wrongful convictions are associated with witnesses who lied in court, or made false accusations. As of 2018, the National Registry Of Exonerations reported that a “record number” of exonerations involved some type of misconduct by government officials.

As a means of addressing wrongful convictions, some states have enacted laws that compensate a person who is wrongfully convicted of a crime. What this means is that if a person is convicted of committing a crime that they did not commit, certain circumstances allow for that person to be paid for the amount of time that they spent in prison.

What States Have Wrongful Conviction Compensation?

Federal compensation law allows for $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. However, wrongful conviction compensation also varies from state to state. According to The Innocence Project, the following states provide a minimum of $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration under wrongful conviction compensation statutes:

  • Texas;
  • Colorado;
  • Kansas;
  • Ohio;
  • California;
  • Connecticut;
  • Vermont;
  • Alabama;
  • Florida;
  • Hawaii;
  • Indiana;
  • Minnesota;
  • Michigan;
  • Mississippi;
  • New Jersey;
  • Nevada;
  • North Carolina; and
  • Washington.

Some other information regarding wrongful conviction compensation statutes include:

  • 35 states, as well as the federal government and Washington, D.C. maintain laws intended to compensate those who have been wrongfully convicted;
  • There are 9 states which provide more than $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration;
  • Additional compensation may be available to those who wrongfully spent years on death row, and/or post release supervision;
  • 19 states provide non monetary services intended to compensate the wrongfully convicted, such as tuition assistance, job searching assistance, counseling services, etc; and
  • Five states have an offset provision for civil awards and settlements, in which the state is reimbursed if the exonerated receives state compensation under the law but then wins a civil suit against their local government.

In 2016, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act. The Act is intended to compensate people for the years they spent in prison for crimes that they did not actually commit. To reiterate, under this Act, the state of Michigan disburses $50,000 for every year of wrongful imprisonment as well as restitution for legal fees and the like.

Who Is Eligible for Compensation?

Eligibility for compensation for wrongful conviction may vary from state to state. Generally speaking, in order to be eligible for compensation, the wrongfully convicted must:

  1. Be Convicted Of A Felony: The person who is seeking compensation must have been convicted of a felony crime, and not a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in jail, and are considered to be less serious crimes. Felonies are considered to be more serious crimes, and are generally punishable by imprisonment for more than one year. Many criminal offenses can be classified as both misdemeanors and felonies. In terms of crimes against property, the more significant the destruction to property or the value of property stolen, the more likely the crime is considered to be a felony rather than a misdemeanor. In terms of crimes against the person, the more serious the harm, the more likely the crime is considered to be a felony; and
  2. Serve Time In A State Prison: When a crime is considered to be less serious, imprisonment is generally served in a county jail facility. In order to be eligible for compensation for being wrongfully convicted, the person must have served their incarceral period in a state prison facility, and not in a county jail facility.

What Do I Need to Show to Get Compensation?

Generally speaking, the claimant will need to establish by preponderance of evidence that they did not commit the crime or related acts. According to the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, “The claimant did not commit the crime or crimes for which the claimant was convicted and was not an accessory or accomplice to the acts that were the basis of the conviction and resulted in a reversal or vacation of the judgment of conviction, dismissal of the charges or finding of not guilty on retrial.”

Eligible parties must also prove that they did not act, or fail to act, in a way that intentionally or negligently contributed to their arrest or conviction.

Most states that honor any compensation for wrongful conviction require a strong showing that no crime was committed or that you were not the one to commit the crime, while other states will not consider such a claim unless the state’s Governor has issued a pardon or clemency. Clemency is sometimes referred to as a pardon, amnesty, or commutation. It is the act of forgiving a criminal of the liability for their actions.

An example of this would be if a person burned down a house, and was convicted of arson. If they are granted clemency, they are forgiven for burning down the home. Additionally, they may not be punished; or, they would be punished less severely than they would have had they not received clemency.

It is important to address the issue of a statute of limitations. Generally speaking, a claim for compensation for wrongful conviction must be brought within 6 months after an acquittal, discharge, pardon, or release from prison.

How Much Compensation Can I Get?

As previously mentioned, states that have laws that compensate for wrongful conviction differ in the amount of compensation that you can recover. Some states have a cap on compensation, in which the amount of compensation cannot exceed $10,000. Some states offer compensation based on a yearly rate, while other states provide compensation based on a daily rate, such as $100 per day wrongfully spent in prison. States also differ in that some treat the compensation as part of gross income, meaning that it is subject to taxation.

Do I Need an Attorney to Get Any Compensation for Wrongful Conviction?

If you have been wrongfully convicted and wish to pursue compensation for wrongful conviction, you will need to work with an experienced and local criminal lawyer. An attorney will be aware of whether the state in which you were wrongfully convicted provides compensation, and what the eligibility requirements are for that particular state. Additionally, a criminal attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.