How much does a jail-happy society owe its exonerees?

Print More

Exoneree John Thompson, of New Orleans, was awarded millions in compensation for wrongful incarceration but has been unable to collect.

Exoneree John Thompson, of New Orleans, was awarded millions in compensation for wrongful incarceration but has been unable to collect.

How much would you need to be paid to spend 25 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola?

It’s just a thought experiment. I’m not putting any money on the table. And if I were, I hope you’d have the good sense to decline the deal. No matter how big the payoff, it would be crazy to accept any such “bargain”. A quarter century in the clink is no joke.

But play along with me in the safety of your imagination, and try to put a price on long-term imprisonment. Would the amount of the current Powerball jackpot be enough – $123 million? Not for me.

But imagine that you agree to the deal. You serve your quarter century at Angola and finally the great day arrives. You meet my legal representative at the prison gates, but … oops! Looks like there are a few snags before you can collect your windfall. For one thing, he tells you, unlike a Powerball winner you don’t have the option of lump-sum distribution, even of a reduced amount. The money will be distributed to you in yearly installments. And one last thing: it will take about six years to process the paperwork before your first check can be cut. Meantime, you’re on your own when it comes to finding a job and reintegrating yourself into civilian life – and good luck, buddy. Hope you don’t die or go crazy trying.

Pretty cruel twist, huh?

OK, it’s a simplistic thought experiment, a crude way to put a dollar value on long-term imprisonment. But let’s go a step farther: Now imagine that instead of being some weirdo who would willingly trade 25 years in prison for future riches, you are an innocent prisoner who has been wrongfully locked up for 25 years. What amount of compensation do you deserve?

Such victims of the system exist — especially in Louisiana, the per capita “prison capital” of the world, give or take the likes of North Korea and a few other outliers. And I think most of us would say a just society owes at least a little something to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned. At minimum, exonerated citizens should receive medical and educational benefits to help them back on their feet. (Louisiana currently provides exonerees with a limited amount of such assistance.) But basic fairness also seems to demand monetary compensation, as well. While no amount could “make up” for decades of lost life, surely the wrongfully imprisoned deserve a handsome pile of cash. Right?

Well, that’s where the issue gets a bit sticky, at least in the minds of our state leaders.

Until 2005, men like Gregory Bright of New Orleans, who served 27 years at Angola before  his  second-degree murder conviction was overturned, received nothing from the state. Legislation was then passed to create an Innocence Compensation Fund, but it was a paltry one. Incarcerated victims would receive only $15,000 for every year they served in error, and the total amount was capped at $150,000 — one of the lowest compensation levels in the country.

Worse yet, the legislature never funded the innocence fund, so exonerees had to engage in a multi-part, multi-year legal process to get anything at all. They actually had to convince a sympathetic legislator to appropriate money directly from the state operating budget. And if approved, this money would still be disbursed in annual payments, not in a lump sum.

Last year some legislators sought to boost the compensation cap up to $500,000, bringing it up to par with what Mississippi pays. Strenuous opposition limited the upgrade to half as much: $25,000 per year, capped at 10 years.

This past session, State Rep. Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria, tried to increase the compensation limit once again, but was met with opposition from other leges as well as the Jindal administration. Realizing his bill was doomed, Dixon wisely changed tactics and was able to pass a bill that aimed, if nothing else, to streamline the delivery of compensation to the exonerated. Dixon also sponsored a resolution urging the Innocence Project of New Orleans to lobby the state Supreme Court Judicial Council to add a fee to court costs that finally would pump some money into the Innocence Compensation Fund.

Again, absent a time machine, there’s no way to do “justice” to the wrongly imprisoned. The justice system has already failed them in ghastly fashion. But clearly the state’s current compensation caps for exonerees are a profound embarrassment. Annual $25,000 checks hardly make up for the suffering that a wrongly imprisoned citizen like Bright endured for nearly three decades. And the 10-year cap on compensation just seems like an insult, especially since the compensation is meted out annually. Do our state leaders worry that some modern-day Methuselah will be jailed for 400 years, and then live another 400 to collect all his dough? Texas for example, allows the wrongly imprisoned $80,000 per year, uncapped. It would seem that those who were wrongly imprisoned the longest deserve the most compensation.

Citing a new national list of exonerations in May, The Times-Picayune reported:

Louisiana has had 38 exonerations in state and federal courts since 1989. New Orleans tops the state, with at least 13 exonerations, followed by Jefferson Parish… [While Louisiana isn’t among the top 10 states in terms of [overall exoneration] numbers, it ranks at the top in terms of the number of exonerated people per capita, said Paul Killebrew of Innocence Project New Orleans, which investigates wrongful conviction cases.

It’s not shocking that a world prison capital is also a per capita leader in exonerations, the New Orleans area in particular. We all know the justice system around here is, well, imperfect. Just ask John Thompson, one of the exonerated locals who was “railroaded to death row” by District Attorney Harry Connick. Or read award-winning criminal justice reporter Matthew Davis’ story  about new evidence that indicates convicted murderer John Floyd wasn’t at the scene of the crime, 30 years ago, for which he was convicted.

State leaders seem to want to have it both ways. When on the campaign trail they crow about “tough justice” (i.e., long sentences for small crimes that further crowd our prisons). There’s always more money to put people away. But, when the same “tough justice” system victimizes innocent people and wrongly imprisons them for decades, suddenly balancing the budget takes priority. It’s like the state’s $25 billion budget will break if we increase the paltry, capped(!) compensation for exonerees? It’s a shameful dodge.

If the best we can do is merely streamline the delivery of inadequate compensation, we might as well change the “Union Justice Confidence” motto on the state flag. How “confident” can we be in our “justice” system if we compensate victims of the system so poorly for our mistakes? The recent small improvements are only baby steps in the right direction. And baby steps are not confident. They are wobbly and small. After all, wasn’t it the Republican winner of Louisiana’s 1964 electoral votes who famously said: “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”?

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.