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.