Paying for lost years behind bars

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Sarah Christensen Attorney At Law, P.C. - Attorney Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs, CO

"Justitia Omnibus"

(Justice For All)

"There is one way in this country in which all men are created equal -- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court." - Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

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Paying for lost years behind bars

By sarahchrist77708548, May 18 2016 04:50PM

Glenn Ford served 30 years in Louisiana prisons — nearly all on death row — for a murder he did not commit. He was freed in 2014 but died in 2015 from lung cancer that had gone untreated while he was behind bars.

Louisiana law provides for up to $330,000 in compensation to people who have been wrongfully imprisoned, but state courts have repeatedly denied Mr. Ford, and now his estate, even that inadequate amount. They say he could not prove he was innocent of a robbery that was connected to the murder for which he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, even though he was never charged with that robbery.

A Louisiana lawmaker introduced a bill last month that would make it easier for people in Mr. Ford’s situation to recover money from the state, but it died in a House committee. The state’s recalcitrance in this case is reprehensible. Shortly before Mr. Ford’s death, even the prosecutor who sent Mr. Ford to prison apologized for his mistakes in a letter to the editor of The Shreveport Times.

At least Louisiana has a compensation statute. Twenty states have no such laws, which means people who spent years or decades wrongfully imprisoned have to bring lawsuits if they want the government to pay for the wrong done to them. Very often, those suits fail because they require proof of official misconduct.

But even where compensation laws exist, they can be badly flawed. Most states, like Louisiana, place the burden on people who were wrongly convicted to prove their innocence before any payment is made. Several states offer embarrassingly small payouts, like New Hampshire, which gives a flat sum of $20,000 no matter how long a person spent behind bars. Others have laws riddled with unreasonable restrictions, like in Florida, where compensation is denied to anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony.

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Some refuse to pay anyone who pleaded guilty or who confessed to a crime he or she did not commit, despite evidence that many innocent people do both. Over all, nearly one-third of the 341 defendants around the country who have been exonerated with DNA evidence have received no compensation.

Finally, most compensation statutes fail to provide those coming out of prison with crucial social services like education, health care, job training and housing. As a result, far too many people end up like Glenn Ford, released directly to the streets, with no money and no prospects.


By the low standards of compensation laws, Texas has perhaps the best. It gives exonerees a lump-sum payout of $80,000 for every year spent behind bars, an additional annuity in the same amount, and funds to help people reintegrate into society. While that is more money than other states offer, it’s still a pittance compared with the loss of years or decades of one’s life. And Texas also bars anyone who takes the payment from filing a civil suit later

A better compensation law would allow bigger payments, which might deter prosecutorial misconduct that leads to wrongful convictions, and also permit lawsuits for the immeasurable damage done.

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Sarah Christensen