If you spend five years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, how much does the government owe you? NPR says the rise of DNA exonerations has made this a more pressing question. Many states have answered it, but the policies vary wildly from state to state. Twenty-one states provide no money, though people who are exonerated can sue for damages. Twelve states and the District of Columbia award damages on a case-by-case basis. Another 17 states pay a fixed amount per year of imprisonment. Among states that pay a fixed amount per year, there’s a huge range of payments. Several states and the federal government offer $50,000 per year for people wrongly convicted in federal court.
Federal payments were set by a law passed a decade ago. At that time, Alabama had the highest compensation at $50,000 per year, so the feds decided to match that, says Stephen Saloom of the Innocence Project. Other states may have followed the lead of the federal government. States that pay the wrongfully convicted might actually be trying to save money, says University of Virginia law Prof. Brandon Garrett, author of “Convicting the Innocent.” That’s because people who are exonerated can sue states — and sometimes win awards on the order of $1 million per year of imprisonment.