Editorial: Putting a price on lost liberty

Published: 7/6/2016 12:05:06 AM

New Hampshire cannot be a just state, indeed there can be no “justice for all” in the “Live free or die” state, when the state itself acts unjustly. The state can often be unfair or rarely be unfair depending on one’s point of view, but there can be no debate about the state’s responsibility to compensate people wrongfully denied their liberty. Legislation is called for.

The law, and the criminal justice system, are fallible. In some cases, though rare in New Hampshire, it is also corrupt or laboring under the mistaken belief that prosecutorial success is measured by conviction rates and the severity of sentences. The fact is that innocent people, particularly if they are poor or black, get locked up, sometimes for years or decades, for crimes they didn’t commit.

What does society owe the wrongly convicted inmates whose freedom is taken from them, whose years have been wasted? New Hampshire, with a law that has received national notice, caps compensation for wrongful incarceration, no matter how long someone was kept behind bars, at $20,000. The amount is an insult and offers no incentive to show exceptional diligence when a citizen’s liberty is at stake. It shows scant concern for justice.

What’s worse is that 20 states offer inmates no restitution at all, not even to inmates who wrongly spent much of their lives on death row. Most states, including New Hampshire, send released inmates back into the world with little more than the clothes on their backs and the phone numbers of already full treatment programs and counseling services.

The majority of states do better than that. A few offer what, given the impossibility of putting a price on a life stolen by incompetence, malice or error, could be viewed as adequate or fair.

Maine caps restitution payments at $300,000, Massachusetts at $500,000 and Vermont at $30,000 to $60,000 per year. The federal restitution level for wrongful imprisonment is capped at $50,000 per year, a goal few states meet. Only 10, according to the Innocence Project, guarantee reentry services, job counseling and other services to the wrongly imprisoned. That’s a guarantee New Hampshire should make, if only to reduce recidivism rates.

Exonerated inmates can sue for restitution, but lawsuits are costly and the success rate isn’t good. Only 60 percent of the 240-plus people exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project succeeded in suing for compensation for lost years. Forty percent got nothing. Only 15 of those exonerated won support services after release.

Oddly, Texas, a state that executes more people than any other, does the best job of compensating the wrongly convicted. It pays them $80,000 per year for every year behind bars as an annuity not a lump sum, and $25,000 per year for every year wrongfully on parole or on a sex offender list.

The “Live free or die” state should not take the mistaken denial of freedom so casually.

We encourage lawmakers with a sense of fairness to sponsor legislation that provides due compensation when the legal system gets it wrong. The federal level of $50,000 for every year of lost liberty would be a good start.

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