Exonerations Have Tripled, Yes Tripled, Since 1989. Now What?

February 11th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

It’s an all too common advent of the justice system these days for a prisoner to be found innocent after years––even decades––of wrongful incarceration. And according to a new report, it’s a trend that is on the rise.

Researchers at the National Registry of Exonerations, a database operated by the University of Michigan Law School, found that in 2014, there were 125 exonerations––a 37 percent increase from the previous record of 91 in both 2012 and 2013, and the most single-year exonerations recorded in nearly 16 years. Though the NRE only began tracking data in 1989, the number of exonerations has nearly tripled since then.

Since 1989, when the first DNA evidence tests were used, paving the way for a landmark strategy in determining guilt, the NRE has recorded a total of 1,543 prisoners set free thanks to pardons, retrial acquittals, and new or overlooked evidence.

Analyst read DNA Evidence

“This is such an unknown area; we don’t know how many wrongful convictions there are, we only know what we find,” Maurice Possley, a senior researcher at the NRE, told ATTN:. “And the only ones we really know about in terms of wrongful convictions are the ones that end in exoneration. I’m sure there are more wrongful convictions that don’t end in exoneration for various reasons.”

A large portion of NRE data was found to be linked to a surge in drug case exonerations in Harris County, Texas, but high numbers were recorded in many other states as well; excluding Harris County, there were 91 exonerations, up from 88 in 2012 and 87 in 2013.

But as exoneration numbers rise, are states equipped to provide adequate compensation and restitution?

Under law in 30 states, plus the District of Columbia and federal system, wrongfully convicted prisoners who are exonerated are guaranteed restitution for their time spent behind bars. Along with monetary compensation based on a minimum for each year served which varies state-to-state, restitution statutes include financial assistance for basic necessities like food and transportation, help finding affordable housing, physical and mental healthcare provision, skill development, and legal services to obtain public benefits and expunge criminal records.

But even with those statutes in place, large numbers of exonerated inmates still don’t receive promised assistance. According to the Innocence Project, only 57 percent of inmates cleared with DNA evidence receive the compensation they are entitled to. And for the remaining 43 percent, they should be lucky to land in a state with compensation statutes in the first place.

In the other 20 states, exonerated prisoners are not guaranteed any form of compensation for their time spent behind bars.

According to Possey, who worked on the recent NRE report, rising numbers of exonerations are pushing lawmakers to catch up with compensation laws. “More states are establishing compensation statutes or schemes to compensate people,” he told ATTN: in a phone call Tuesday. “Washington passed a law a year and a half ago, [and] Hawaii is contemplating such a law.”

But according to Possey, in many cases, the problem is more systemic. “The point is, even though there are schemes in place, it doesn’t always function quickly, and it sometimes doesn’t function at all.”

Despite the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, a federal law that guarantees prisoners exonerated of federal crimes $50,000 for every year in prison, as well as $100,000 for each year on death row, states continue to lag behind, with few even reaching let alone exceeding federal standards. As a recent LA Times investigation pointed out, compensation payments range from $5,000 per year locked up in Wisconsin, to $80,000 per year in Texas.

The need for states to enact restitution laws is crucial, according to the Innocence Project, especially as evolving criminal justice policies and advanced crime investigation tools proliferate, giving rise to more and more exonerations. Also essential, however, is the reexamining of existing laws to ensure adequate payback for robbing an innocent person of years of life––though in many cases, money can’t buy back that time.

According to Possey, until that time comes, all we can hope for is for a greater awareness. “As more and more exonerations come to light, I think that that demonstrates the people who become Exhibit A to the problem.”

Here Are 10 Things Anyone Can Do To Help Exonerate Innocent People and Prevent Wrongful Convictions.