Witness to innocence's compensation campaign
Did you know that many exonerated death row survivors receive $0 in compensation for their time spent on death row?
Witness to Innocence’s Justice After Exoneration committee is focused on the issue of compensation for all exonerees. We fight for compensation in the states that have no compensation laws and in states where the laws are so weak that it is almost impossible to get justice.
Our campaign consists of meetings and testimony to key members and committees of Congress, a media and public speaking strategy targeting core constituencies and the general public, and outreach and
collaboration with others who have been wrongfully convicted and denied compensation after being released from prison.
We have met with the Department of Justice over the last few years, most recently in February 2016, to speak about the needs of exonerees after release from prison. We are currently working on legislative efforts in various states across the country.
The Punishment Continues After Incarceration…
On average, an exonerated death row survivor spends 11.5 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Exonerees proven to have been wrongfully convicted through post-conviction DNA testing spend, on average, more than 14 years behind bars.
But the suffering doesn’t end once the innocent are released.
The agony of prison life, complete loss of freedom and time, years of separation from friends and family, and past inability to establish a career are all factors that continue to impact exonerees. Additionally, exonerees are often released with no money, housing, transportation, health services or insurance, and a criminal record that is sometimes not cleared regardless of innocence.
Despite being proven innocent, these challenges and hardships weigh heavily on death row survivors after exoneration. We believe that states have a responsibility to help restore the lives of the wrongfully convicted.
Why Should a State Compensate the Wrongfully Convicted?
Despite their proven innocence, the difficulty of reentering society is profound for the wrongfully convicted. Exonerees are often denied access to reentry programs and state aid for the formerly incarcerated precisely because they were exonerated. Because of this, many may suffer from PTSD and other serious health issues, very limited employment prospects, lack of access to training programs, and challenges with securing and keeping stable housing, among other roadblocks to reclaiming a semblance of a normal life after death row.
The failure to compensate exonerees adds insult to injury. We believe that society has an obligation to promptly provide compassionate assistance to the wrongfully convicted in the following ways:
Monetary compensation, based upon a set minimum amount for each year served
Financial support for basic necessities, including subsistence funds, food, transportation
Help securing affordable housing
Provision of medical/dental care, and psychological and/or counseling services
Assistance with the development of workforce skills
Legal services to obtain public benefits, expunge criminal records, and regain custody of children.
Official acknowledgement of a wrongful conviction
The government’s public recognition of the harm inflicted upon a wrongfully convicted person helps to foster the healing process, while assuring the public that the government – regardless of fault – is willing to take ownership of its wrongs or errors.
What states have compensation statutes?
The federal government, the District of Columbia, and 33 states have compensation statutes of some form. The following 17 states do not: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming.
Graphic courtesy of the Innocence Project
What Are Common Shortcomings in Existing Legislation?
Even in states that do have compensation laws on the books for those who were wrongfully convicted, some refuse to compensate exonerated death row survivors in spite of the horrors they faced. There are complex reasons for this: arcane and arbitrary loopholes in state laws exploited by prosecutors, courts, and lawmakers; laws that are not retroactive; perceived public unpopularity of such programs and the pressure to “look tough on crime;” and even the vulnerability of economically and racially marginalized people who don’t have resources to fight back.
Current shortcomings in the system include:
Refusing to enact uniform and/or statutory access to wrongful conviction compensation. Some states opt to compensate the wrongfully convicted only via “private compensation bills.” This approach politicizes compensation based on the individuals and policymakers involved, requires exonerees to mount costly and demanding political campaigns, and threatens to deny appropriate – or any – compensation to those who truly deserve it.
Prohibiting compensation to those deemed to have “contributed” to their wrongful convictions. This denies justice to those who were coerced, explicitly or implicitly, into confessing or pleading guilty to crimes it was proven they did not commit.
Denying the additional remedy deserved by those who can prove their wrongful convictions resulted from patent and intentional civil rights violations, as opposed to simple error.
Preventing the compensation of individuals with unrelated felony convictions.
We believe that these aspects of current legislation unfairly prevent many exonerees from receiving compensation.
What Can Be Done to Ensure Fair Compensation In Every State?
By guaranteeing compensation to the wrongfully convicted, a state can take an important step towards ensuring the integrity of its criminal justice system. Witness to Innocence believes that key changes can and should be made:
States that do not have compensation statutes must pass them.
States that have compensation statutes must re-examine them to ensure they make compensation equally attainable and adequate for the wrongfully convicted.
Statutes should include either a fixed sum or a range of recovery for each year spent in prison. President George W. Bush endorsed Congress’s recommended amount of up to $50,000 per year, with up to an additional $50,000 for each year spent on death row. (These figures should be adjusted for inflation).
Statutes should include the immediate provision of subsistence funds and access to services critical to a successful return to society, including housing, food, psychological counseling, medical and dental care, job skills training, education, and other relevant assistance needed to foster the successful rebuilding of the lives of the wrongfully convicted.
Statutes should not contain the provisions noted in the “Common Shortcomings in Existing Legislation” section above.