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Wrongfully Convicted Often Get Nothing

CNN has an article about the many states that have no laws providing some compensation for those who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. It begins with the story of a Washington man who spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and then walked away with virtually nothing — $2500 he had earned while making 42 cents an hour working at the prison.

According to an Innocence Project study, Northrop is among the 40% of exonerated prisoners nationwide who received nothing from authorities for their time behind bars. The report calls for all states to pass laws providing the same compensation that the federal government offers for federal crimes: $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration with an additional $50,000 for each year spent on death row. Today, five states have the same standard.

Money would give Northrop a chance to “just get started over again and have a normal life again,” he said. He works full-time but lives in a small room in a friend’s house because he can’t afford his own apartment.

Even in the states that do offer compensation to the innocent, standards vary wildly. Some pay $50,000 per year. Two pay more (Texas and Vermont), but others less. Wisconsin pays $5,000 per year while Missouri pays $50 per day. New Hampshire sets an award cap of $20,000 while other states set a maximum of $500,000, $1 million or no limit.

According to the Innocence Project, exonerated prisoners who are eligible for compensation wait an average three years to receive their money. Most states tax the money, according to the Innocence Project Report.

“There’s sort of a gut reaction that this is a horrible injustice,” said Innocence Project Northwest attorney Lara Zarowsky, who helped free Northrop. She is lobbying for a law in Washington state that would provide not only compensation for exonerated prisoners but also counseling, job training and other benefits that are currently available only to guilty former prisoners, not exonerees like Northrop.

Some tasks, like learning new technology or finding transportation, can be difficult for someone who has been out of society for a decade or more. Zarowsky is also pushing for mental and physical health care benefits for exonerees.
Washington state agencies “just say flat out they’re not eligible because they weren’t actually guilty so they don’t qualify, they don’t fit our criteria,” Zarowsky said.

Nationwide, 10 states provide social services to help the innocent recover from their time in prison.

“It’s not all about the money,” Northrop said. “It’s about possible counseling for certain individuals. … People have no idea what effect stress has on a person in there. … What that does to a mindset is just devastating. Terrible.”

Even more importantly, we should take the necessary steps to prevent people from being wrongfully convicted in the first place — and there are a lot of steps that need to be taken. A short list: reform the way eyewitness identification and testimony are handled; allow everyone to record the police in public; eliminate prosecutorial immunity and disbar any prosecutor who is proven to have withheld or faked evidence; institute serious penalties for police officers who lie on police reports and frame innocent people (do it once, you’re fired — and ineligible to be hired by any other law enforcement agency); require that all DNA evidence is tested and preserved for future testing if new and better techniques are developed; national funding and standards for public defenders; reforms to reduce the pervasive racial bias; end the war on drugs.

I could go on all day. Unfortunately, there is no real political constituency for getting any of those reforms made.

Comments

  1. Michael Heath says

    One avenue for justice I would like to also see included is broad plaintiff rights to file a civil suit with broad juror rights to derive compensatory damages and especially punitive damages.

  2. jamessweet says

    Unfortunately, there is no real political constituency for getting any of those reforms made.

    Of course not. These people are convicted criminals, after all. Who wants to do them any favors?

  3. rmw1982 says

    I’m surprised (and disheartened) that many of these former inmates can’t receive assistance simply they were not guilty. What’s the reasoning behind this? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give such assistance to released inmates, regardless of guilt or innocence?

  4. Aliasalpha says

    Wait wait wait, texas actually accepts the fact someone convicted might not be guilty after all? Oh its april 1st…

  5. JoeBuddha says

    Maybe if it starts costing real money, the legislature would start holding prosecutors and police accountable!
    (nah)

  6. cthulhusminion says

    To really twist the knife, the state also presented Northrop with a child support bill of $110,000 for the time he was in prison.

  7. Aquaria says

    Texas does all this for their wrongfully convicted inmates:

    $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, as well as $25,000 per year spent on parole or as a registered sex offender, plus an annuity.

    Compensation for child support payments, tuition for up to 120 hours at a career center or public institution of higher learning, and reentry and reintegration services, including life skills, job and vocational training for as long as those services are beneficial. In addition, the state provides necessary documentation (i.e. a state ID card) and financial assistance to cover living expenses. Help is also provided to access medical and dental services, including assistance in completing documents required for application to federal entitlement programs, assistance in obtaining mental health treatment and related support services through the public mental health system for as long as necessary. Assistance also includes obtaining appropriate support services, as identified by the exoneree and the assigned case manager, to assist in making the transition from incarceration into the community.

    Now this is what they say they do. What they actually do is another matter. But I didn’t know they did this much. It’s one of the most generous compensation packages in the nation.

    I can’t believe my state at least attempts to do something right. I’m so used to it being worthless at everything.

  8. says

    “Unfortunately, there is no real political constituency for getting any of those reforms made.”

    Well, there is a political constituency for ending the War on Drugs, at least as far as cannabis is concerned (support for cannabis legalisation inched past the 50% mark a few months ago), but the rest… not too hopeful.

  9. rmw1982 says

    “I can’t believe my state at least attempts to do something right. I’m so used to it being worthless at everything.”

    I’ll be honest, I’m surprised that Perry lets such a generous compensation package stand. You’d think he’d be screaming that such a compensation is soft on crime or some such nonsense.

  10. Alverant says

    My guess is that some people think that if you were wrongfully convicted of a crime then you’re only serving time for the crimes you did commit but weren’t convicted of doing. Ergo you’re still guilty and don’t deserve anything.

  11. michaelgaribaldi says

    They should be glad that they don’t get stuck with a bill for room and board that they were not rightfully entitled to.

  12. dingojack says

    Michael – and the state didn’t get sued for the $15/hr (being stingy with the pay rate) x 8 hrs a day x 240 days (being generous with unpaid holidays etc.) x 17 years = $489,600 in lost earnings (that’s equivent to $2,400 a month in rent).
    Dingo

  13. eric says

    Ed:

    disbar any prosecutor who is proven to have withheld or faked evidence; institute serious penalties for police officers who lie on police reports and frame innocent people (do it once, you’re fired — and ineligible to be hired by any other law enforcement agency); require that all DNA evidence is tested and preserved for future testing if new and better techniques are developed; national funding and standards for public defenders…

    Just quibbling, but I don’t think the first two in the quoted list go far enough. The system should actually use any criminal penalties associated with them, or create criminal penalties where they don’t exist. When a prosecutor (or cop) intentionally breaks the law to try and send someone to jail, they should go to jail. It may not be attempted kidnapping per se, but its in the ballpark. Certainly its conspiracy to commit (what should count as a felony) crime.

    As for the last two, I agree, but those things cost money. I really doubt the public today is willing to pay for those improvements.

    Unfortunately, there is no real political constituency for getting any of those reforms made.

    There are real constituencies – joe public is it. You and I are it. The problem is messaging. The folks promoting revisions need to do a better job at showing/convincing regular people that these are measures that will help them. Every time an innocent goes to jail, the police stop looking for the real murderer, rapist, or burglar. That dangerous criminal is free to commit more crime. Every time a prosecutor omits evidence or a cop lies, your safety goes down because your safety depends on the system weeding out the innocent. And this is all in addition to the “what if you were that guy” argument.

    The folks oppsed to reform have been extremely successful in directing the conversation on to questions about the rights of ‘bad people.’ Until we stop playing their game and make the point that its about protecting good people, civil libertarians are never going to gain traction on this issue.

  14. Chiroptera says

    eric, #14: It may not be attempted kidnapping per se, but its in the ballpark.

    It’s worse than kidnapping. Not only does being a convicted felon carry a stigma that a kidnap victim doesn’t have, at least in a kidnapping you have the state using its resources to rescue you as opposed to, if you’re lucky, an underfunded volunteer group (which, in turn, is usually being opposed by the state).

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