Thursday, March 27, 2014

No amount of money can fix the life of a wrongfully convicted person. But we should pay them all, anyway.

One of the worst aspects of how slowly the wheels of the criminal justice system grind is just how long it takes a wrongfully convicted person to be released. Often, even after the eventually-winning motion has been filed or the critical piece of evidence has been unearthed, it is not even just months but years before release occurs. Most of those successful exoneration motions are not on the original direct appeal, either, so the exoneree has spent a decade, and often much more, in prison before being released.

When they are released, exonerees are sent out into a new world, usually a world quite different from the one they left. They have no assets, no work experience, not much education to tout. In short, they are in desperate need of finding a means of support and yet not the most appealing job candidates, what with criminal records and long incarcerations in their past. Spending long stretches of time in prison is bad for one's health, too, so those who are released will likely have health needs, even if it's just dental work and eye care. (Incarceration can lead to serious increases in near-sightedness. Eyes will lose the ability to focus on distant points if they can't see past a wall 10 feet in front of them.) There's also the psychological damage of incarceration itself, especially for those exonerees who spent significant time in solitary (as a lot of death row inmates do).

We all cheer the stories of each individual exoneree as he or she is released after 10, 20, or 30 years of struggling to prove innocence. I wish more attention would be focused on what their lives look like a year after exoneration. How they can't get landlords to rent them apartments or employers to give them jobs. It might be hard not to feel a little bitter that you can't earn a paycheck (not that you need it to pay rent if you can't find an apartment) while the prosecutor who ruined your life got a big promotion or a judgeship because of your case.

We need to do a better job of helping exonerees after release. As a starting point, it ought to be required that every state (or the federal government, for federal defendants) must provide certain basic benefits. Health care, including eye, dental, and mental health care. Job training or education. Housing (which might require the state providing some kind of incentives for landlords). And then there's just money. Money would take the pressure off the job search, make it not matter much if landlords are leery of renting to ex-cons, regardless of legal "technicalities" like innocence. If exonerees have a nice pile of cash, they can buy homes and get away from nervous landlords. They don't have to convince timid employers to take chances. They don't have to risk homelessness and hopelessness. They don't have to mooch off family members they haven't been around consistently for 20 years.

According to this report by CBS, 29 states (as well as the federal government and DC) have statutes that provide for compensation for the wrongfully convicted. Which means that 21 states do not. In those 21 states, exonerees have to jump through the hoops of filing lawsuits or trying to get special legislation passed through their state's legislature. Filing a lawsuit can be difficult, figuring out who you can name as a defendant who doesn't have immunity. But that's still got to be easier than getting any legislature to pass a bill just for one person. The easiest solution, though, would be for those 21 states to get off their duffs and pass statutes that will cover all exonerees.

As a final matter, any jurisdiction that considers prohibiting compensation to a wrongfully convicted defendant who "contributed" to the wrongful conviction should shove that idea where the sun don't shine. Could that include a scared defendant who is being convinced he will be executed if he goes to a jury trial opting to take a plea deal to a crime he didn't commit? Keep in mind that one of the reasons a lot of prosecutors insist states should keep the death penalty as an option is to coerce encourage defendants to plead out. Because, of course, the prosecutors already know they have the right guy, so they can run roughshod over him to get him to waive his constitutional right to a jury trial. So, sure, it's fair to refuse to compensate a wrongfully convicted defendant who allows himself to be run over like that.

I'm confident that "contribution" exception would include defendants who falsely confess. That would sure save states a lot of money as somewhere between 25 and 30% of wrongful convictions involve false confessions. The interrogation techniques used in most police interview rooms throughout this country are specifically designed to get confessions, after all. Not the truth. Confessions. Because, of course, by the time the cops begin these interrogations, they already know they have the right guy, so all that matters is getting him to say exactly what the cops want to hear. So, sure, it's fair to refuse to compensate a wrongfully convicted defendant who allows himself to be bullied into lying like that.

The system is heavily weighted against suspects and defendants from the beginning. Police are allowed to lie to get defendants to confess, but if a broken suspect gives in and responds with a lie, well that's the suspect's own damn fault. Prosecutors can threaten death, but if a scared defendant gives in to save his life, well then he had that time in prison coming. That's a heartless, cynical attitude that should be removed from the calculus of every compensation statute. And, really, it shouldn't matter one bit why exactly a particular defendant was the victim of a wrongful conviction. 

No matter what specific factors contributed to any particular wrongful conviction, we the people should all contribute to helping right that wrong. After all, every wrongful conviction involves the power of the state being misused to incarcerate an innocent person. We can't give any exoneree those stolen years back, but we ought to do all we can to make sure every exoneree has a shot at making a life with the years he has left. It's criminal that there is any state in this country where that isn't a given.


A Voice of Sanity said...

A good option would be to pay them the salary of the state governor for the time they were wrongly imprisoned - or at least that of the attorney general.

I'm sure both lived in much nicer places.

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