Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Price of a Life

What’s the right way to compensate someone for decades of lost freedom?

...In 1985, when he went in, Restivo was a frightened twenty-six-year-old. When he was released, he was forty-four: middle-aged, with no real résumé, severe P.T.S.D., and a sense of bafflement about “why everybody was walking around holding their heads like they had an earache.” (Restivo was incarcerated before the advent of the cell phone.) ...

...In 2010, he received a $2.2-million settlement from the State of New York, but much of that went to lawyers and to his mother, who for two decades had spent everything she could spare on his case, at one point putting up her house as bond. Restivo tries to live as if that settlement were the last money he will ever have. “When they handed me that check, I’m not thinking, Ah, I’m rich!” he said. “I’m not eligible for Medicaid. I’m not eligible for Social Security. I never put money in a 401(k). That money has to last me forever.”

...There is still no consensus about the value of lost time. Missouri gives exonerees fifty dollars a day for time served, California twice that much. Massachusetts caps total compensation at half a million dollars. In Maine, the limit is three hundred thousand; in Florida, it’s two million. The variation is largely arbitrary. “If there’s a logic to it, I haven’t seen it,” Robert J. Norris, a researcher at SUNY Albany who has studied compensation statutes, told me. In Wisconsin, no matter how long an exoneree has served, the state will pay no more than twenty-five thousand dollars—the same figure that its legislators established in 1979. “They just never changed it,” Norris said. “They even amended their statute in 1987, but they didn’t change the amount.” Most states levy taxes on payment. Twenty states have no compensation statutes at all.

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