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If you spent time in prison for a crime you didn't commit, would you expect to be compensated?

Sep 17, 2016

There’s a question Dave Moran asks whenever he gives talks about his work at the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic.

"If the state said, ‘We’re going to lock you up for something you didn’t do. We’re going to frame you, or just be sloppy with our job … And then after one year, we’ll announce that we made a mistake and we’ll set you free.’ How much would it take for you to agree to that?

"To have your life totally disrupted, to be vilified in the public and the press, for a crime you didn’t commit – only to be exonerated just one year later? And most people say, no amount of money, or millions of dollars or something like that," he says. "So, $50,000 seems pretty modest."

Fifty-thousand dollars for each year of wrongful imprisonment: that’s what the state would pay exonerated prisoners out of a "wrongful conviction" fund. That fund already has bipartisan approval from the state Senate, and the House judicial committee will take it up this week.

More than 60 people have been exonerated in Michigan since 1989, according to the Michigan Innocence Clinic’s numbers.

And the fund even has support from the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

"Wrongful convictions are the last thing we want," says President Mark Reene. "It’s the kind of thing that keeps us up at night. And when it does happen, we obviously recognize that compensation, in this form, is certainly something we support."

The state’s Attorney General’s office, however, is "still reviewing the legislation," according to a spokesperson.

Under the legislation, any damages an exoneree wins in a lawsuit, would be subtracted from the amount they’d otherwise get from the state fund.

"In fact, most wrongfully incarcerated people can’t sue," Moran says. "For example, you can’t sue the prosecutor for anything they’re doing as a prosecutor. You can’t sue the judge. You can’t sue a witness, even if they lied against you. It’s very difficult to sue the defense attorney, and it’s very difficult to sue the police officers."

Still, an exoneree would agree not to sue the state after accepting money from the fund.

So how much could this wind up costing taxpayers?

Lansing’s fiscal analysts say they aren’t really sure – but maybe $13 million over roughly 10 years.

It’s obviously hard to predict how many people will be exonerated, but if the Innocence Clinic’s numbers are on track (and 64 people were exonerated since 1989, out of which 26 people would have been eligible for compensation from the fund), then Michigan would be on the hook for at least $13 million about every 10 years, according to the state’s calculations.