Here’s a common scenario:
Pushed out the prison gate with a plastic bag of prison belongings, you get no apology or official acknowledgment of your innocence or what you went through.
Journalists ask you about your plans, how it feels to be on the outside, and whether you are bitter. But the headlines and attention from well-wishers quickly fade.
You are broke, without a place to live, few or no job skills, and a long gap in employment history. Your RAP sheet still lists the felony conviction, even though it was overturned. You tell prospective employers and landlords that you served time for a crime you did not commit. They are skeptical. Even if they believe you, they may still give the job or apartment to someone else.
You are not the person you were before. You suffer from a unique form of post-traumatic stress disorder, due to the wrongful conviction itself, and the Kafka-esque experience of knowing you are innocent while surrounded by people who did not believe you.
Kind offers of assistance fail to materialize, or do not last. You need basic medical and dental care, but you don’t know how to get it. You don’t qualify for the modest re-entry assistance provided to parolees, because you are not on parole. There are no state programs aimed at exonerees. You will have to fend for yourself.
You think about suing the government, but the harsh reality is that proving you were actually innocent will not be enough. To win, you must get around broad immunities that protect police and prosecutors. You may not be able to prove that a government official violated your civil rights in obtaining the conviction. And even if you find a lawyer to take your case, any money will likely be years away. What will you do in the meantime?
You wonder what the state provides to people who were imprisoned for something they did not do. In 20 states – including Oregon, Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – the answer is: nothing at all.
In eleven of the remaining states, the compensation money won’t get you very far. In Wisconsin, you’d get just $5,000 for each year you were imprisoned, capped at $20,000. In Montana, you would be eligible for free tuition at a state university, but no money.
In another six states, access to compensation is severely limited. In Maine and Maryland, you would need a pardon from the governor – a pardon for something you did not do – before getting any money. Only a few states will reimburse the attorneys’ fees you or your family will spend in proving your eligibility for compensation.
What about the lawyers or organization that worked to win your freedom? They care deeply about what happens to their exoneree-clients after release, and do what they can, but exonerees “aftercare” is not their job, not their mission, not their skill set. The sixty member-organizations that make up the Innocence Network employ just two social workers nationwide.
Do any organizations focus on post-release assistance for exonerees? Just a few, but they work face-to-face with exonerees in their communities. While important, these efforts serve fewer than 4% of exonerees nationwide. And their traditional, in-person service models cannot be scaled to reach exonerees are spread out across the country.