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Making up for lost time: What the Wrongfully Convicted Endure and How to Provide Fair Compensation

2010 National:

Executive Summary:
It’s an accepted principle of fairness in our society to compensate citizens who, through no fault of their own, have suffered losses. When a person’s land has been seized for public use, they receive adequate repayment. Crime victims and their families receive financial compensation in all 50 states. Yet, strangely, the wrongfully imprisoned, who lose property, jobs, freedom, reputation, family, friends and more do not receive compensation in 23 states of the nation. For decades, many people, criminal justice professionals included, didn’t acknowledge the extent of error in the criminal justice system or that wrongful convictions occurred. DNA testing has changed that. As of this writing, more than 240 people have been proven innocent and exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing. They spent on average 13 years, and as many as 31 years, in prison. Forty percent of them have not received any compensation, and as many as 31 years, in prison. Forty percent of them have not received any compensation, and many more received only a paltry amount that fell far short of repaying their losses or helping them get re-established in the free world.

The Exonerated Person’s Ordeal and Why It Has Been Ignored

Psychological research of the wrongfully convicted shows that their years of imprisonment are profoundly scarring. Many suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, institutionalization and depression, and some were victimized themselves in prison. Physically, they have aged ahead of their peers, and often their health has suffered from years of sub-standard prison health care. Professionally, they lag far behind, lacking the job experiences, and vocational or educational training to be competitive in the workforce. Many have never used a computer, cell phone or even an answering machine. Family members have passed away, children have grown, spouses and partners have moved on. The exonerated are released into a world that has changed dramatically from the one they knew, and they too have dramatically changed.

States offer little to no immediate support services to help with the transition. Exonerated people who live in one of the 27 states that has a compensation law may file for state compensation, but the average length of time exonerees wait to receive funds is almost three full years. In the meantime, the exoneree may lack a source of income, a means of transportation, health coverage and a stable home. Even from the first joyous day of release, exonerees face the immediate crisis of where to sleep, how to eat and how to provide for themselves.

The state should immediately extend a helping hand and provide the compassionate assistance necessary for exonerees to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. Instead, some states leave exonerees no other option but to sue. Lawsuits are not a viable alternative to state compensation; they require a long, protracted legal battle with no guarantee of assistance once it’s over.

Only 28% of DNA exonerees have won lawsuits; others have tried and failed. Success depends on the exoneree’s ability to show that his wrongful conviction was caused by intentional misconduct and to name the responsible party. Under this system, some exonerees get compensated, but many others don’t. Everyone is deserving.

State compensation statutes present a better alternative. Only state government can provide reliable, fair and immediate assistance to the exonerated. In fact, it is their responsibility to do so. Although the wrongfully convicted are especially deserving of assistance, they have historically been overlooked perhaps because they are predominately poor, minority and underrepresented in state and local government. Of the over 240 people exonerated through DNA testing, 70% are people of color.

For the remainder of this paper

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