What Happens if You are Found Innocent After Being in Prison?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: September 30, 2021

I used to think that everyone who was in prison deserved to be there, but when I was put behind bars, I discovered that I couldn’t have been more wrong. The majority of people in prison are there for a non-violent offense. Oftentimes, the only victim of the “crime” is the state, in my opinion. 

This is what happened in my case. I was arrested and charged with manufacturing a controlled substance when 12 marijuana plants were found in my roommate’s closet. I ended up with two 15-year prison sentences because of it. 

There are so many people who are in prison because of non-violent drug crimes. After a 50+ year drug war, I think it’s safe to say that we should look at other ways to deal with addicts and those with mental health issues.

But, that’s not the point of this blog post. In addition to non-violent offenders with no victim, there are also people in prison who are completely innocent of the crime they’ve been convicted of. It happens way more often than you might think. However, once you’ve been convicted of a crime and put behind bars, it’s nearly impossible to reverse it. So, what happens if you are found innocent after being in prison?

In today’s blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • Appeals can last for years
  • Innocence doesn’t necessarily mean release from prison
  • Many states have laws on the books to compensate the wrongfully accused

Appeals can last for years

The research shows that between 2% and 5% of those sitting in U.S. prisons are actually innocent. Since 1989, more than 250 people in 34 states have been exonerated and released from prison through post-conviction DNA testing but getting to that point of exoneration and release takes years. 

For example, a man named Kenny Waters was accused of murdering Katherina Reitz Brow in 1980 after she was stabbed to death in her home in Massachusetts. Kenny was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Even though Kenny didn’t commit the crime, he spent 18 years in prison fighting to clear his name. He went through a number of appeals, all of which were denied. The key in his case was getting outside help, which is really hard to do.

His older sister, Betty Anne Waters, went back to school to get her college degree and law degree with the goal of getting her brother released. Almost two decades after Kenny’s conviction, Betty Anne was able to get it overturned due to DNA evidence. 

She worked with the Innocence Project to get the DNA tested, which proved Kenny was innocent. This case was turned into the movie Conviction, starring Hillary Swank.

What I’m trying to say, is that the state can easily convict someone and put them in prison. But getting someone’s conviction overturned is so rare that they make movies about it when it happens. 

To make matters worse, up to 40 percent of those who are released from prison after being wrongfully convicted and incarcerated receive zero financial compensation. Can you imagine if that happened to you?

Innocence doesn’t necessarily mean release from prison

Prison inmates who have been proven innocent through DNA testing spend an average of 14 years behind bars before they are released. But there is no guarantee that they will be released even if the post-conviction evidence proves it.

That leads me to the story of Kevin Stickland, who has been in a Missouri prison since 1979 when he was convicted of a triple murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2021, the Jackson County prosecutor’s office — who put Strickland behind bars four decades ago — admitted they had made a mistake.

Jean Peters Baker, the current Jackson County prosecutor, issued a public apology to the man she believes was wrongfully convicted.

“My job is to apologize,” she said. “It is important to recognize when the system has made wrongs … and what we did in this case was wrong. So, to Mr. Strickland, I am profoundly sorry.”

However, Strickland is still in prison. As is Lamar Johnson, who was convicted of murder in 1994, but has since been proven innocent. The problem in my home state of Missouri is that the Attorney General doesn’t want to admit the state made a mistake. 

Strickland’s lawyer points out that, in both cases, the real killers pleaded guilty, and have already served their time for the murders. But the Attorney General says time has run out to allow for Strickland and Johnson to be released. Even though they are both innocent. 

What it comes down to is that both Strickland and Johnson missed a state-imposed deadline. Which means they will stay in prison for the rest of their lives despite their innocence. 

Many states have laws on the books to compensate the wrongfully accused

Currently, 37 states and Washington DC have laws on the books that offer compensation to inmates who have been exonerated and released from prison. The federal compensation standard is $50,000 per year of incarceration, plus an additional amount if they spent time on death row.

The following 13 states do not have compensation laws: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming. 

That means if you get wrongfully convicted and locked up in one of those states, you are out of luck. Just like Floyd Bledsoe from Oskaloosa, Kansas, who spent 16 years behind bars for a murder someone else ended up confessing to. He had to fight for financial compensation.

“Before I was locked up, I had 40 acres, livestock, a wife, and kids,” he said. “When I was released, I had nothing … I lost my family, my job, my reputation — everything.”

“When an innocent person is deprived of liberty because of a wrongful conviction, regardless of fault, the government has a responsibility to do all it can to foster that person’s re-entry in order to help restore some sense of justice,” said Maddy deLone, executive director of the Innocence Project. “Fair compensation is part of that.”

What amount of money should someone receive when they are wrongfully convicted? Should it be based on time behind bars? Let us know in the comments below.


Time Doesn't Pay, Wrongfully Imprisoned Find


Why are wrongfully imprisoned people still imprisoned in Missouri?


More than 2,800 have been wrongly convicted in the US. Lawmakers and advocates want to make sure they're paid their dues


What Do States Owe People Who Are Wrongfully Convicted?


The Price of Freedom: What Happens to the Wrongfully Convicted?


Compensating the Wrongfully Convicted

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