I wrote in an earlier post that a wrongful conviction amounts to a triple tragedy. First, the wrongfully convicted person ends up in prison. Second, the victim is deprived of real justice. Third, the real perpetrator remains free, and can victimize others.
Today, let’s consider another kind of cost: money paid in compensation to those wrongfully convicted.
In twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia, those wrongfully convicted are eligible to receive some amount of compensation. No state has to do this; there is no constitutional obligation.
Texas, which has had more wrongful convictions than any other state. Dallas County, alone, has twenty-four, a larger number than every state except Illinois and New York. Perhaps because of of the magnitude of its problem, Texas has one of the more generous compensation schemes in the country.
According to an article in the Austin American Statesman, Texas has paid out some $65 million dollars in wrongful conviction compensation. This is an enormous amount of money, and according to many authorities, the amount will certainly grow over time.
What accounts for this in Texas, a state that had a lock-’em-all-up mentality on crime for so many years? One answer comes from Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis, one of Texas’ leaders on criminal justice reform. “The justice system in Texas had fundamental flaws, and this is the result. At this point, I don’t think anyone can seriously doubt that we had a problem — a big problem.” Another member of the legislature, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, sees the compensation as a way to get the system to respond to the mistakes of the past. “I’m committed to correcting the problems we know have been a problem in our system in the past. We have to make the system accountable.”
Of course, it is worth pointing out that this isn’t the only monetary cost of wrongful convictions. Costs for trials and appeals of the wrong people can run into the millions of dollars before a person is exonerated.
Prosecutors, police, and some lawmakers have opposed the compensation system. Some of them believe the compensation system in Texas is too generous.
But some folks in Texas disagree. As Chairman Whitmire says, “it’s just the right thing to do.” Legislative spokesperson Jeremy Warren adds that “people can get upset about the level of compensation, but imagine spending years and years in prison for a crime they did not commit. If it was you, how much would be enough?”
So if tougher-than-tough Texas can do this, why can’t other states?