Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction in the death of his wife and his 25-year incarceration is told in his just-published book “Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s Journey from Prison to Peace.” His traumatic experience of discovering that his wife had been brutally murdered, followed by a guilty verdict based on shoddy police work, was passionately recounted by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times a few weeks ago.
In it, Kristof recounts the miscarriages of justice suffered by not only Mr. Morton but many others, as carefully documented by the Innocence Project — an organization that works diligently to provide legal services to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Clearly, the more than 218 cases of those exonerated for crimes they did not commit speaks to the simple conclusion, as Morton contends, that “our criminal justice system is profoundly flawed.”
It has been well documented that such miscarriages of justice often disproportionately impact minority populations — particularly blacks and Hispanics. But such inequities are only compounded by a little-known fact regarding the manner in which these exonerated individuals are compensated for the miscarriage of justice upon their release from prison.
According to compensation laws in Texas, Mr. Morton is eligible to receive approximately $2 million for the time he was denied his freedom. The State of Texas, as per a 2011 amended law, stipulates that a wrongfully convicted person is entitled to $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. Colorado and Florida, as well, have laws providing comparably liberal compensation packages.
Imagine if he had served time in the Illinois criminal justice system. His compensation would have amounted to a mere $199,150, a sum provided to anyone wrongfully imprisoned for any period in excess of 14 years. This would convert to, in the case of Mr. Morton, compensation on an annual basis of only $8,000, or 10 percent of what the Texas law allows.
Or, take the case of Michael Williams, falsely convicted of rape at age 16, and sentenced to life in prison. Four years following his release from prison at age 40, he was paid $150,000 by the state — just over $6,000 for each year of his wrongful incarceration.
While state compensation laws vary widely, only about half of the states have statutes compensating the wrongfully convicted. This is partly responsible for the fact that, of the 218 people exonerated by DNA testing, only about 50 percent have received any form of compensation to date. The recommended federal level of compensation is currently $50,000 per year. Sadly, of those exonerated, only one in five of those compensated under state laws received compensation equal to or greater than the federal standard.
While some states also provide various services such as job training, reintegration services, tuition assistance, counseling and other such services, there remains the difficulty of getting society to believe that you are actually innocent or, at least, as Mr. Williams told The Wall Street Journal, “not damaged.” He added: “It’s been lonely, very lonely.”
Financial compensation cannot alter these prejudices. To suggest that Mr. Morton was lucky to be imprisoned in Texas would be heartless and perhaps even hurtful. I suspect few would be willing to trade 25 years of freedom for any sum of money. Nevertheless, the extraordinarily wide differential of the dollars given to the exonerated speaks to an undercurrent of the inequality we currently place on the value of lost freedom or life itself.
A question that must be asked is whether the right of the state to determine how the wrongfully convicted are compensated severely infringes upon the rights of those who are wrongfully convicted. The injustice that begins with a wrongful conviction, in too many cases, seems to extend well beyond the time that one’s freedom is granted.
Robert A. Rosenthal is a professor of economics at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. He studies the value of economic loss.