The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at New York’s Yeshiva University. Since that time the Innocence Project and its partners have been instrumental in securing the release of many of the 258 prisoners exonerated by DNA evidence nationwide – including 17 who spent time on death row.
Exonerees have served an average of 13 years in prison and experience all of the usual difficulties faced by long-term prisoners reentering society, yet are denied even the inadequate social services and financial assistance available to released prisoners. The plight of exonerees has received little attention or study, but a recent Innocence Project report describes the ordeals they suffer and recommends model legislation to ensure fair compensation for wrongful convictions.
Exonerees who serve lengthy prison terms often have a variety of disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder; poor health due to substandard prison medical care; institutionalization; depression; lack of work experience, education and training; and lack of experience with modern technology. Frequently some of their family members have died, their partners found new mates and their children grew up during their incarceration. When exonerees seek housing or jobs, they are often treated like any other released prisoner. Clearly innocent people who have been wrongly convicted deserve compensation, yet almost half never receive any.
There are three ways for exonerees to obtain financial compensation: a civil lawsuit, statutory compensation or a private bill passed by the legislature. Each method has its problems, but they all suffer from a delay between release from prison and compensation.
Such delays average 3.9 years for a lawsuit, 2.8 years for statutory compensation and 1.8 years for a private bill. During the delay, exonerees may suffer homelessness and have no means to pay for needed medical care or even food and clothing. Compensation payments may also vary widely, even within the same state. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.24].
All 50 states have passed crime victim compensation legislation. This is not because the state is liable for crimes, but rather because it is the right thing to do. For similar reasons, compensation for exonerated prisoners is proper regardless of whether the state was at fault. Twenty-seven states, the federal government and the District of Columbia have passed compensation statutes but only five states – Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina – meet the federally-recommended level of compensation of at least $50,000 per year of imprisonment and $100,000 per year on death row. Four other states do not specify the amount of compensation and could, in some cases, meet the federal recommendations.
Monetary compensation is not the only support that exonerees need, but the provision of social services is spotty. For example, North Carolina offers job training and tuition expenses. Vermont provides 10 years on the state’s health care plan. Montana offers educational aid, but only to DNA exonerees, and does not provide financial compensation. Some states provide less compensation and support to exonerees who pleaded guilty or falsely confessed; Florida restricts compensation to exonerees with no prior criminal record.
In terms of compensation and support, Texas has become a model. With one-sixth of all DNA exonerations, Texas has seen a steady stream of wrongly-convicted prisoners released over the past fifteen years. For Tim Cole, who died due to inadequate medical care while in a Texas prison, his exoneration came too late. Cole’s case and the activism of his family and the rape victim he was wrongly convicted of attacking led to the passage of the Tim Cole Act in 2009. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.26].
The Act provides for $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment, $25,000 per year on parole or as a registered sex offender, 120 hours of job training or college tuition, life skills training, vocational training, immediate assistance for living expenses, assistance for child support payments, assistance in accessing federal entitlement programs, and help with medical and dental care.
According to the Innocence Project report, compensation statutes are the best and most efficient method of compensating exonerees. This is because it is difficult and time consuming to sue government officials, and private bills can lead to large variations in compensation. The Innocence Project recommends that compensation statutes provide a minimum of $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration ($100,000 if on death row), plus payment of attorney fees associated with filing for compensation, provision of immediate social services to assist with housing, transportation, education, health care and finding a job, and issuance of an official document acknowledging a prisoner’s exoneration.
Model legislation is appended to the report, which is available on PLN’s website or at www.innocenceproject.org.
Source: “Making Up for Lost Time: What the Wrongfully Convicted Endure and How to Provide Fair Compensation,” Innocence Project (December 2009)
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