“It felt so pitiful just being let out of prison and feeling like you have to fend for yourself,” says Scott, who is 39. “You can only rely on your family members so much.”
Simmons and Scott were two of the first exonerees to be eligible for the benefits of legislation that Gov. Rick Perry signed into law in 2009. The Timothy Cole Act, named for a posthumously exonerated inmate, increased the financial compensation for Texas exonerees from $50,000 to $80,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned. It also provides a monthly payment from that lump sum to act as a steady source of income and an initial payment of up to $10,000 to help exonerees get established right after their release. The legislation “was a great step,” says Michelle Moore, a public defender in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. “They just didn’t give thought to how it would be handled.”
Simmons and Scott couldn’t agree more. The two men were convicted of capital murder in a 1997 shooting death linked to a Dallas-area home-invasion robbery after being misidentified as the assailants by an eyewitness: the victim's wife. The University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network and the Actual Innocence Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin worked on the case for years and eventually built a case to help exonerate them.
The trouble started soon after they got out. First, they struggled to collect the $10,000 the Legislature had promised to help with their reintegration process. Then they were unable to collect non-monetary benefits like clothes, money, and temporary housing, which are available to paroled prisoners but not to those who never committed a crime in the first place. They finally received their compensation checks last week — six months after being freed.
“Exonerees aren’t given a dime when they leave prison. Many don’t have a place to lay their heads at night,” says University of Texas at Arlington Exoneree Project director Jaimie Page, who helped get Scott and Simmons identification and other staples after their release. “If they have no family — and many do not — they are essentially homeless.”
I worked on that legislation last year as the Policy Director for the Innocence Project of Texas, and am sorry to learn there are still glitches showing up during exonerees' reentry transition. Of course, around 72,000 people per year released from Texas prisons face virtual identical reentry problems, but exonerees did nothing to earn them.
It's hard to devise a way to trigger payments before someone has finally received their pardon or had their writ of habeas corpus approved by the Court of Criminal Appeals. That's the disconnect causing the funds not to be released along with the prisoner. OTOH, I doubt exonerees would prefer staying in prison another six months until the courts processes their cases and the money comes through. If anybody can think of a workable fix, please say what it is in the comments.