Special Report

States Where the Most Prisoners Are Exonerated

The number of wrongfully convicted Americans who have been exonerated has been steadily rising since at least 1989, when the National Registry of Exonerations began closely tracking this trend.

Before 2012, it was rare to have more than 100 convictions overturned in any given year. But since then, the number of exonerations by year has ranged between 103 in 2013 to a record 183 in 2016, when a raft of convictions for drug sale or possession were overturned. (These are states where the most prisoners die.)

An average of three exonerations a week, more than double the rate in 2011, is the new normal. Part of the reason for this trend is an increase in scrutiny of prosecutorial procedures, especially in larger cities, according to a 2016 report in Time magazine. The number of exonerations also varies by state.

To determine the states with the most wrongly convicted people, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from The National Registry of Exonerations – a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. States were ranked on the number of people incarcerated in the state who have been exonerated since 1989. Federal cases were excluded. Alaska and Hawaii did not have sufficient data and were also excluded. Data on exoneree compensation came from the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization focused on wrongful convictions. Incarcerated population data came from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and is for 2020. 

Larger population states typically have the most overturned wrongful convictions, but that is not always the case. This suggests scrutiny of the judicial system varies across the country. 

Illinois, the country’s sixth-largest state by population, leads with 505 exonerations since 1989. By comparison, Florida, the country’s third most populous state, has just 81 overturned wrongful convictions since 1989.

Another factor that may play a role is compensation. Not all states provide monetary compensation for exonerees. According to the Innocence Project, a dozen states, including South Carolina (No. 47 on the list), Arkansas (No. 39), and Kentucky (No. 32), have no wrongful conviction compensation laws. 

The vast majority of states with no compensation rank in the bottom 25. To compare, Texas, which has the second most exonerations since 1989, compensates exonerees $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment.

In states where wrongfully convicted people get compensated, the amount and available social services to help exonerees reintegrate into society varies, and in some states it can be lacking. In some cases, states have so-called “private compensation bills” that deal with compensation on a  case-by-case basis that can require exonerees to mount publicity campaigns and yet still be denied compensation, according to the Innocence Project. (See also, the number of bombings last year in every state.)

Here are the states where the most prisoners are exonerated.

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