After years – sometimes decades – in prison for crimes they did not commit, most exonerees never receive meaningful compensation or any consistent, coordinated post-release assistance.
They continue to suffer the consequences of wrongful conviction for the rest of their lives.
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. You have few or no job skills, and a long gap in employment history. You still have a criminal record, even though your conviction was overturned. You explain to 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 don't 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 innocent will not be enough. To win a lawsuit, you’ll need to get around broad immunities that protect police and prosecutors, and then prove that your wrongful conviction was caused by a government official's intentional bad acts. 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 17 states – including Oregon, Georgia, and Pennsylvania – the answer is: nothing at all. In eleven of the remaining states, the compensation money won’t get you very far. For example, in Wisconsin, you’d get just $5,000 for each year you were imprisoned, capped at $25,000. 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, you would need a pardon from the governor – a pardon for something you didn’t do – before getting any money. In Missouri, you can get compensated if you were exonerated through the use of DNA evidence, but not if you were exonerated some other way. 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 you after release, and will do what they can, but for the most part, exoneree “aftercare” is not their mission and not their skill set. They have their hands full trying to identify and win freedom for the next innocent person in prison.
The Bottom Line: The odds are that you will join the vast majority of exonerees - whether out of prison for two weeks or twenty years - who never receive any consistent, reliable help with rebuilding their lives.
All this presents us with some important questions:
What does a good society do for people who prove they were imprisoned for crimes they did not commit?
How might we reach a large number of exonerees across the country, as quickly as possible, with assistance in at least a few critical areas?
Why this Matters: Meaningful compensation and access to consistent, reliable re-entry assistance is a civil rights issue for exonerees, an accountability issue for our justice system, and a social justice issue for all of us.