In this week’s What Would You Do series, we ask how you would compensate a person for a life incorrectly spent in prison. Recently on NPR, Kathy Lohr interviewed two men who had been wrongly imprisoned for much of their adult lives.

Prison BarsShe writes, “Calvin Johnson was falsely convicted of rape and received a life sentence. He served 16 years before becoming the first man in Georgia to be freed by DNA evidence in 1999.” Johnson has since written a book called, Exit to Freedom, but freedom poses its own trials.

“Johnson says he faced a number of challenges: learning how to use computers and cell phones, opening up a bank account and even getting a fair deal on his first apartment. The manager wanted to double or triple his security deposit. Johnson persuaded the manager to rent the apartment at the regular rate.”

But he was persistent and a good attitude paid off beyond bars. He says, “I have a steady job. I’m a homeowner. I have a lovely wife. I have a daughter. I have a little dog that wags his tail. Basically, you could say I’m living the American dream.” But this all came at a hefty price.

The Georgia Innocence Project took Calvin Johnson’s story to the state legislature; ultimately, he received a half-million dollars. According to the national Innocence Project in New York, about half of those exonerated by DNA have received some kind of compensation ” from a few thousand dollars to as much as $12 million. Twenty-one states have laws that allow such payments, but most hear each case individually before deciding whether to pay anything at all.

Christian Davenport of The Washington Post wrote an article called Putting a Price on Pain that explored this ethical dilemma further. He writes, “As DNA testing frees increasing numbers of innocents from prison, states across the country are facing a politically sensitive and morally complex calculus: What is the value of a life unjustly spent behind bars?”

“Recently, Virginia passed a law that compensates wrongly convicted people 90 percent of the state’s annual per capita income -or about $30,000 – for up to 20 years. Alabama pays a minimum $50,000 for every year of incarceration. New Jersey provides up to $20,000 per year, or twice the person’s pre-prison salary, whichever is greater.”

Ronald Kuby, a New York lawyer provides further color:

  • What’s a prison rape worth?
  • What’s missing your child’s first day of school worth?
  • Not being with your parents as they lay dying?
  • Having your parents go to their graves with you branded a convict?

“As complicated and imperfect as it is, deciding what a person’s life is worth is done repeatedly. Juries routinely award damages in wrongful-death cases. They even calculate the value of limbs lost in accidents.”

So what is fair compensation? And what does it say about society at large with how we calculate damages?