What’s a Year Worth?

How much money would it cost you to voluntarily spend a year of your life living in a cage, prohibited from earning even minimum wage, surrounded by criminals, and being branded a criminal yourself? Would $5,000 do the trick? Well, according to the State of Wisconsin, that is “fair and equitable” compensation.

Under Wisconsin law, an individual who is wrongfully convicted of a crime, then later exonerated and able to prove his or her innocence by clear and convincing evidence, is entitled to a maximum of $5000 in compensation for each year spent wrongfully incarcerated. What’s worse, the compensation is limited to a maximum of $25,000, regardless of the total number of years spent in prison. And of course, these are the maximum permissible amounts available under the law; there is no guarantee that an individual will even receive this amount.

This issue recently took center stage at Nicholson & Gansner, when we represented the estate of an individual who spent 6 years in a Wisconsin prison for a crime he did not commit. Sadly, he unexpectedly passed away just weeks before the Wisconsin Claims Board was to hear his claim for compensation. Nevertheless, his estate was able to pursue his claim and, ultimately, was awarded $20,000 for the time he spent in prison and reimbursement for the legal fees that his family amassed while trying to fight his conviction. While we were happy to help the family recover the legal fees which they had to shell out fighting a decade long battle to clear their son’s name, the idea that six years of his life was only worth $20,000 is troubling. It should trouble anyone with a conscience.

Also disappointing was the Claims Board’s decision to discount his compensation from $25,000 to $20,000 because of his actions following his release from his wrongful imprisonment. This individual had some trouble re-entering society after spending six years in prison. He struggled with depression, drug use, and was ultimately convicted of a crime that he actually did commit. While this doesn’t make him a model citizen, we at Nicholson & Gansner disagree that it somehow justifies reducing compensation for the six years of his life that were wrongfully taken from him.

This is a timely issue; the Wisconsin legislature is currently considering bills that would raise the maximum amount of compensation available to those who are wrongfully imprisoned, but would also disqualify someone from receiving any compensation if they are subsequently convicted of any later crimes. If you think that a year of anyone’s freedom is worth more than $5000, if the prospect of $20,000 doesn’t seem like equitable compensation for 6 years of wrongful incarceration, and if you think that being locked away for something you didn’t do might cause you emotional or psychological problems that could lead to potential criminal behavior upon your release, now is the time to let your local legislator know how you feel. This really shouldn’t be a controversial issue. Making the justice system a bit more just and a bit more accountable is something we should all be able to support. It is simply the right thing to do.