Wrongfully convicted

As of 2016, our Federal government still has no legislation in place which would require that ALL of our state governments pay reparations to people who have been wrongfully convicted.

As of 2016, our Federal government still has no legislation in place which would require that ALL of our state governments pay reparations to wrongfully convicted.

In the United States Of America, if someone is found to have been wrongfully convicted of a crime and they have served a sentence within our Federal prison system, our Federal government reimburses that person $100 per day multiplied by the number of days they’d served in prison once their convictions are officially overturned (minus applicable state and Federal taxes.)

As of June of 2016, in 26 states, the state governments have laws which require that people who have been determined to have been wrongfully convicted will be reimbursed by the state governments.   And in 24 states, as of 2016, people how have been determined to have been wrongfully convicted get reimbursed a total of $0.00 for the years or even decades that they’ve served in prison.


As of 2016, our Federal government still has no legislation in place which would require that ALL of our state governments pay reparations to people who have been imprisoned within city, county or state prisons and later determined to have been wrongfully convicted. 

Without the Federal government forcing them to pay reparations, the 24 state governments which currently do not pay anything at all to people who have been determined to have been wrongfully convicted once their convictions have been overturned will likely opt to continue their current policies of reimbursing a total of $0.00 to people once they are released from the state prisons for crimes that they had no involvement in.

Why Do We Still Continue To Have So Many Wrongful Convictions?

There are quite a few reasons that people end up being convicted of crimes that they did not commit.  This has been studied closely by a number of groups in recent years.  Among the most common reasons are that people have committed previous crimes, so they end up becoming suspects in other crimes, and they are incorrectly identified by witnesses.

In recent years, psychologists and psychiatrists in both the U.S. as well as in a number of other countries have actually been closely studying the relationship between witness misidentification and the phenomenon of false memories which can often result from witnessing a violent of traumatic event. 

Other common reasons that people end up being convicted of crimes that they did not commit include nothing more than simply being in the wrong location at the wrong time; if someone is the only person known to have been in close proximity to a crime scene at the time that the crime occurred, they often become the most obvious suspect.


Sloppy investigations also contribute to wrongful convictions.  All police investigators are trained in methods of collecting evidence, but not all police agencies are always able to correctly identify which pieces of evidence that they collect are actually the traces that were left by the guilty party or parties.

In a small number of cases, law enforcement agencies have been known to intentionally falsify or manipulate evidence, where corrupt policemen are involved in crimes themselves.  While such incidents are now relatively rare, in earlier eras in our history such incidents were more commonplace, and they do in fact still occasionally occur in the present day.

Improved technologies are now beginning to contribute to a reduction of wrongful convictions.  While surveillance cameras and closed circuit television are nothing at all new, the lenses that surveillance cameras use as well as the computers which the footage that they record are becoming increasingly sophisticated, which results in much higher definition and clarity in video surveillance footage.  There are also now more surveillance cameras in place than ever before, so it is finally becoming easier for law enforcement to accurately identify people who have participated in crimes, rather than rely on witness identification and testimony.

Technologies which are available to our military and to our government intelligence agencies such as aerial drones may also become available to civilian law enforcement agencies soon, which may also further contribute to a reduction in incidents of people being wrongfully accused of involvement in crimes that they did not commit.

However, wrongful convictions will never be entirely eliminated.  Obviously, it is not possible to know accurate or precise numbers of people who are presently serving prison sentences for crimes that they were not involved in.  While increasingly advanced technologies which are now available to police detectives are likely contributing to a reduction of wrongful convictions, there will likely always continue to be people who end up being wrongfully convicted of involvement in crimes that they had no connections to.

How Do Wrongful Convictions Get Discovered And How Are They Overturned?


There are a number of ways that people become exonerated and have their convictions overturned.  One of the more common means that investigators at projects such as The Innocence Project use to free people who have been wrongfully convicted is DNA testing.

Prior to the late 1980’s blood type identification was the only method of analysis of tissue samples which was available to law enforcement agencies.  Since the 1990’s DNA testing methods have become increasingly sophisticated; the tests are more accurate than ever, smaller samples than ever are needed to produce accurate results, the tests now take only a few minutes to process the results, and the equipment needed for police departments to test tissue samples is becoming increasingly less expensive.

There is also now a national database which contains samples of DNA from people who have been known to have been involved in violent crimes and rapes, so law enforcement agencies can now both identify as well as eliminate potential suspects quickly.

Law enforcement agencies also now have access to computerized databases which are able to identify finger prints of people who have been known to have been involved in crimes throughout the entire country, which also makes it easier for police to correctly identify people who were involved in crimes- as well as to eliminate people from their lists of suspects.

Another common method that frees people who have been wrongfully convicted from prisons is when another person ends up confessing to the crime that someone has been incorrectly imprisoned for.  Many times, when someone is (rightfully) corrected of a serious crime, it is not the first time that they’ve committed a serious crime, it’s simply the first time that they’ve gotten caught, or that there has been enough evidence to secure a conviction.

There actually have been a number of incidences in which a prisoner tells their cell mate or other inmates about previous crimes that they’d committed which they’d never gotten caught for.  And some prisoners end up reporting these incidents to guards, the guards then in turn report that information to the prison wardens who subsequently report that information back to the relevant law enforcement agencies.  Sometimes prisoners report information that they learn about other crimes out of consciousness- they are honestly trying to reform themselves and turn away from crime, and other times prisoners have been known to report information that they learn about crimes that other prisoners have been involved with because they are hoping to have their own sentences reduced in exchange for providing information.

All state and county police agencies as well as the police departments in all major cities have cold case squads which are devoted entirely to researching older cases.  Sometimes, it is cold case detectives who end up discovering that people have been serving years or even decades in prisons for crimes that they had no involvement in, nor knowledge of.  In some instances, cold case detectives re-examine files and evidence which had been filed in their storage facilities for many years or even for decades, and they discover that what the police had originally thought were homicides turn out to have been accidents, suicides or people who had actually died from natural causes.

In recent years, there have been a small handful of cases which people who were reading information from social media websites such as facebook have actually ended up discovering and providing the missing pieces of information that have allowed law enforcement agencies to solve cases which they had been unable to solve years or even decades earlier.

Now What?

People who have been wrongfully convicted have lost years of their lives, and in many cases, they’ve lost decades of their lives.  They’ve endured living in cramped prison cells, they’ve had to adjust to wearing prison uniforms every day, they’ve adjusted to a steady diet of prison meals, and the only medical care that they’ve received for years has been from prison doctors.  For years, they’ve only been able to see their family members and friends during the limited visitation hours.

They’ve often been working in UNICOR labor programs, or comparable programs within the state prison systems for anywhere between 23¢ and $1.15 per hour, minus state and federal taxes (current 2016 UNICOR minimum and maximum wages.)   Many of them have had to become accustomed to witnessing fights, stabbings, beatings, rapes and murders, and in some cases, some of them have become victims of fights, beatings and rapes while they were in prison.


And now they suddenly have to re-adjust to freedom.  Which may initially sound easy, but it actually never really is.  In some cases, the judges, the attorneys and the law enforcement officers who were involved in wrongfully convicting someone have been known to offer verbal apologies to the people who have been determined to have been wrongfully convicted after their convictions had been overturned.  In the instances in which a judge, a prosecuting attorney, a police investigator or a witness offers a statement of apology to the person who has been wrongfully convicted, the people who have been wrongfully convicted do often say that the apologies do make them feel better- but readjusting to freedom comes with an enormous series of challenges that those of us who have never had to experience it can only imagine.

People who have been incarcerated have to adjust to technologies that did not exist when there were first arrested and subsequently convicted.  As a visual exercise, I challenge all of our readers here to try to envision that you’d been imprisoned 10 or 20 years ago, and then suddenly released into today’s world, what today’s world would look like to you.

These people are also often both physically as well as mentally exhausted from having been locked up for so many years- and the strain of knowing that they were wrongfully convicted, with usually notably few people anywhere being willing to listen to them or to believe them only further adds to their years of stress.  A handful of psychologists and psychiatrists have now finally begun to conduct interviews with people who have been determined to have been wrongfully convicted, and it appears that what many of them ended up experiencing is actually a very mild form of many of the same stresses and symptoms that appear in people who have been taken hostage, prisoners of war and torture victims.

 After years of incarceration, these people now have to try to reconnect with their families. Many of them have had family members of close friends die while they are in prison, and they now have to try pick up their lives, find a job or pursue higher education.  Although  these people have been proven to have been wrongfully convicted, many of them have also been tried “in the court of public opinion,” and they are released into a world in which people remember them for having been accused of being rapists or murderers.  The constant media attention that had been focused on them for their alleged involvement in violent crimes, assaults, murders or rapes also takes a serious psychological toll on many of these people.


Some of the people who end up having their convictions overturned were serving either life sentences or were facing the death penalty.  In these cases, the mere fact that these people were even sentenced to life sentences or to death row and that they had to seriously contemplate the possibility that they might die for crimes that they had no involvement in ends up scarring them to the point that they have difficulty concentrating on even simple tasks many years following the quashing of their convictions.

Once a person’s conviction is officially overturned, the legal work is complete, and so the volunteers who work for the Innocence Project then turn to their next cases.  While the legal battle ends, the psychological battle of readjusting to long awaited freedom begins.  Fortunately, the staff at the Innocence Project has recognized that the legal battle is only part of the struggle that awaits people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes that they were not involved with, and there are now support groups which have been established specifically for people who have served time in prisons for crimes that they had no involvement with and who have had their convictions overturned, so that they can attempt to assist each other with readjusting to life after prison.

Comparison With Legal Systems Overseas

Legislation regarding compensation for people who have served prison sentences and have later been determined to have been wrongfully convicted varies between countries.  Briefly, some countries do have legislation which requires that their governments pay reparations to people who have been wrongfully convicted, while others do not.  From what I could find, the rights of the wrongfully convicted never actually seems to be a popular campaign issue anywhere in the world.

Here’s an opportunity for the U.S. government to set a leading example for many other countries to follow, and show that we’re not turning our backs on people when our law enforcement agencies, our attorneys and our courts have failed them.

Further Reading:

  • For those readers who wish to read more about The Innocence Project, the link to their website is http://www.innocenceproject.org  and you may also be interested in viewing the 2005 documentary After Innocence.  The link to this movie’s website is http://www.afterinnocence.net
  • For those readers who are interested in reading further about the National Registry Of Exonerations, the link to the project’s website is www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx.
  • And lastly, for those who wish to read further about the psychological stresses that people who have been incarcerated for crimes that they did not convict experience, the most recent report that I could find was the 2013 Study of Victim Experiences of Wrongful Conviction which was commissioned by the U.S. Department Of Justice-  https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/244084.pdf .

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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