How Much Is a Year of Life Worth?

Let’s say you were wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to prison. Several years later you are exonerated and released. Should the government compensate you for those lost years, and if so how much?

Dallas Morning News columnist James Ragland dug up the answer to that question, and you may be surprised.

According to Ragland:

  • Ohio provides $40,330 for each year a person is incarcerated, plus lost wages and attorney fees.
  • Texas provides $25,000 a year, with a $500,000 maximum cap.
  • Alabama pays a minimum of $50,000 a year.
  • Vermont, Michigan and Hawaii will pay up to $50,000 for each year.
  • California pays $36,500 a year.
  • Tennessee has a total cap of $1 million.
  • And, Ragland says, “The federal government pays those exonerated of federal crimes $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated—and twice that much if they were convicted of a capital crime.”

And, of course, some states don’t necessarily provide anything.  

So here’s the question: How much is a year of life worth? Of course, some people earn more than others. Should past earnings, before being incarcerated, be considered. How about education. We know that, on average, high school graduates earn more than dropouts. And college graduates earn more than high school graduates.

It all seems very subjective.

But let’s throw another factor into the mix. In England, the National Health Service—the country’s government-run health care system—pays for prescription drugs. The NHS imposes a threshold of about $56,000 for a drug that will extend the patient’s life by a year.

In other words, if a prescription drug costs under $56,000—roughly the same as some states pay for an exonerated convict—and will extend a patient’s life by a year, the British government (i.e., taxpayers) will pay for it. If not, it was nice knowing you.

Incidentally, in the U.S. the standard is about $100,000 per additional year of life.

We don’t know what the right amount is to appropriately compensate those wrongly convicted of a crime. In one sense, no amount of money is enough.  
But we do know that when the government regulates prices, it usually keeps the price artificially low. And there is little reason to think that when the government calculates how much a year of your life is worth, it will act any differently.