Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

What is a year of your life worth? Priceless

One of the haunting experiences that I had during my annual week of service on the Gulf Coast with students, did not come from victims of Hurricanes’ Katrina or Rita, or their consequences. It came form meeting two men who had served over 20 years each in jail for crimes that neither had committed. One had been on death row. These two men were exonerated because of the use of DNA testing in post-conviction criminal cases. DNA testing has helped exonerate more than 250 innocent people. These innocent men and women sat in prison for an average of 13 years.

It is hard to imagine. My eyes filled with tears when one told us of the son or daughter that he had never held. He was now in the process of getting to know his now grown up child. How can a person be compensated for this? Any aspiration he once had for a good education and career have long disappeared.

Exonerees who sat on Death Row

I read an interesting article by Tina Trenkner called Paying For Lost Time. Ms. Trenker reviews what financial compensation is available which seems to be build upon how much they might have earned.

“Depending on the state, the wrongfully convicted could get social services and up to $80,000 per year–or get nothing at all. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., provide compensation and/or services, but many states have provisions that could make an exoneree ineligible for such damages, including having a prior felony conviction or submitting a guilty plea when not guilty. Twenty-three states have no provisions, but the exonerated could sue or request compensation through a private bill, requiring a legislator to sponsor it–both options are difficult to pursue.”

Ms. Trenker then introduced (for me at least) an organization called The Innocence Project, which is an advocacy group who would like every state to have an exoneree compensation law that reflects the guidelines set out on a federal level. Current federal guidelines: Provide the wrongly incarcerated up to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, and $100,000 per year served on death row. “The beauty of a compensation statute is that it provides a formula that treats everyone equally,” says Rebecca Brown, policy advocate for The Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project

I believe it is important to financially compensate exonerees and ensure that they can live out the rest of their lives with dignity and meaning. There is an important place for an advocacy group such The Innocence Project.

But I can’t loose the image of the man in New Orleans, who never got to hold his child and now must pick up the pieces with his adult child. There are some things that you cannot put a price on.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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3 thoughts on “What is a year of your life worth? Priceless

  1. Alon – interesting that this is your topic. In my Casey Anthony piece, I quoted a juror who said “I’d rather have a guilty person set free than an innocent person put to death.” Everyone has been so enraged over her acquittal, but the sad thing is there just wasn’t enough evidence to support a guilty verdict. I read things such as your post and have to remind myself that everything in this life happens for a reason. I hope that these people find solace somewhere in some sort of similar reasoning. And frankly, I’d much rather our tax dollars went to something like this than to so much of what it’s wasted on.

  2. Alon-
    Anyone wrongfully incarcerated should be compensated. I would say three times their income prior to imprisonment or 3X the average american pay, which ever is higher.

    Texas needs a hard look by the feds. At least two men have been put to death in the past few years that have been shown to be innocent. Texas authorities knew there was info available before their deaths that could possibly exonerate them but they threw the switch anyway!

    These types of mistakes are the reason I’m no longer in favor of the death penalty. Also, the death penalty is financially expensive (life imprisonment is cheaper). Lastly, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it isn’t up to me to decide who should live or die based on pre-thought. If it’s a life or death emergency situation, then that is different…I’ll fight like an enraged animal!

    Good post subject. Sorry, I got a little off track about the death penalty.

  3. Pingback: Troy Davis – Revisiting the Death Penalty « Left Coast Voices

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