The article, What Do States Owe The Exonerated? (Plastic), poses an interesting question. Almost everyone will have a knee-jerk reaction to it—evincing either a gut feeling that an exonerated prisoner is an innocent man and therefore has been treated unfairly by society or a kneejerk reaction that anyone who the courts saw fit to send to jail must be guilty in one way or another. There are those who view every exoneration as the result of a sly criminal’s—and a liberal lawyer’s—machinations of our leaky legal system, taking “let he without sin cast the first stone” to heart and assuming everyone’s got at least one skeleton in their closet for which they should hang. Especially them folk what don’t look like our folk. You know you are.
This topic is especially interesting in light of the fact that increased use of DNA evidence is blowing formerly airtight cases right out of the water and overturning rape and murder verdicts up to a quarter century old. These are people who protested their innocence, fought against the devils determined to pin the deed on them, sat through a good third of their lives behind bars and are released into the world beneath the big blue sky once again. What does society owe them? An apology? More? Compensation for lost time and lost earnings? What of the rest that was lost?
It seems only fair that they get something more substantial than a kick in the pants or a mumbled apology. Granted, the system may not be fair, but nor does the system have to be unduly harsh—especially when it can easily do something about it. People who have been behind bars for such long stretches are no longer capable of neatly integrating into society, at least not without a lot of help. The last thing they actually need is to be financially strapped as well. These are people whose slate has, in effect, been wiped clean, so why not simply calculate the amount of money they could have been expected to earn had they continued life on the outside and offer that to them as a form of reparation for a life ruined. It doesn’t approach recompensing the former prisoner for mental anguish or opportunity lost, but at least it’s something.
The Innocence Project works to help these former prisoners integrate because they fall into a legal limbo as far as most governmental integration assistance programs are concerned—those generally only apply to ex-convicts. What do states owe the exonerated? by Amanda Paulson (Christian Science Monitor) cites the head of the project:
“We are exonerating people who did not commit crimes, spent two decades in prison or time on death row, and when they get out, there are fewer reentry services for these people than for individuals who actually committed crimes … It’s a measure of decency.”
To their credit, almost half the states in the US now have some form of compensation program in place, though some limit their reparations to relatively low fixed figures—like $25,000—instead of tying the amount to years served somehow. Make no mistake, these are not country club stays being discussed here. A recently exonerated inmate, Byron Halsey, lived a life we can hardly imagine, as reported in DNA clears former inmate by Glenn Townes (New York Amsterdam News):
“He was sentenced to two life terms plus 20 years in prison, with no possibility of parole for 70 years. He spent nearly 22 years—the bulk of it in solitary confinement—at a New Jersey state prison. (emphasis added)”
This isn’t even just jail time in the classic sense, this is jail time that is tantamount to psychological torture by any standard of human decency. Long stretches of isolation has grave effects on even the strongest individuals—these innocent men are spending years and years and years of their lives in conditions not even sanctioned by the Geneva conventions for something they didn’t do. If you want to hear what a quarter century of stolen life sounds like, check out the last entry in the Headlines for April 25th, 2007 (Democracy Now!):
“My name is Jerry Miller. The State of Illinois has imprisoned me for twenty-five years, one year on parole as a registered sex offender. Yesterday I became number 200 – person to be exonerated by DNA testing in the United States. The State gave me the number, I know it by heart – N235281 – tonight I’m free!”
It comes across much better live, so Listen to the MP3 clip (culled from the MP3 of the show, taking from the 13th to the 14th minute). You’ll hear the cracking voice of a man, who, despite every effort of a cruel system, has not been broken and can still express a joy in the life left to him. We owe it to people like him to give him every chance he can to make the best of it—instead of dropping him into a corner of society with little or no help, shunning him to avoid being faced with our own shame.