When innocent people are exonerated after wrongfully spending time in prison, some states pay money to the accused for their trouble. As data from NPR and the Innocence Project show, those payouts are often despicably low.
In Wisconsin, the stingiest state, you'd receive just $5,000 for every year you were locked up. For some perspective: if living in a dehumanizing hellhole as punishment for crimes you didn't commit were a nine-to-five job, they'd be paying you $2.40 an hour. If you're getting paid around the clock, your hourly rate is down to 57 cents.
Missouri, the second worst, gives $18,500 — barely more than a year of full-time work at minimum wage. If we're giving freed prisoners restitution for everything we took away from them — including their ability to earn an income — shouldn't the rate be higher than what they could make pouring coffees at Starbucks?
Surprisingly, the biggest payouts come from Texas, which gives $80,000 per year in prison. The federal government, along with six states, gives $50,000.
You may have noticed on the map above that some states don't give money at all. Aren't they the ones most deserving of vitriol? Surprisingly, no. As Convicting the Innocent author Brandon Garrett points out to NPR, the payouts are actually a cost-saving measure, because prisoners in no-pay states are free to pursue damages through the civil justice system:
...people who are exonerated can sue states — and sometimes win awards on the order of $1 million per year of imprisonment, Garrett says.
In many states, people who are exonerated have to give up their right to sue in order to collect the set payment.
Policymakers may have decided that it's better for states "to encourage people to take more moderate compensation early on and maybe forgo the multimillion-dollar lawsuit," Garrett says.
Wrongfully accused? Respectfully decline that "moderate compensation" and sue the system that put you away for every penny it will give you.