Thursday, November 27, 2008

Exonerees face difficult re-entry task

With the passage of the federal Second Chance Act and numerous state and local re-entry initiatives for felons, the problem of long-time prisoners needing help to successfully get back on their feet and become productive citizens when they get out has received more focus than any time in recent memory.

However, a cruel and ironic twist on the problem shows up regarding recent DNA exonerees in Texas and around the country: Since the cases against them were dismissed, they're not even entitled to the minimal level of re-entry assistance given to someone on parole leaving prison who actually committed a crime.

To help with exonerees' re-entry dilemma, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health gave a grant to UT-Arlington's school of social work to provide counseling services and study what re-entry needs exonerees have in common. Although DNA exonerations often represent the end of a years-long legal battle, reports the Fort Worth Star Telegram ("UTA professors get grant to study exonerated men's adjustment to freedom," Nov. 26):
two professors at the University of Texas at Arlington say that is hardly the end of the story for the exonerated men themselves.

"Basically, for these guys, the story really starts when they walk out of the courthouse," said John Stickels, a professor of criminal justice and jurisprudence at UT-Arlington. "They can’t get a driver’s license or Social Security card. People won’t rent to them because they think they must have done something wrong. They can’t get medical treatment. It’s just starting over completely.

"What we hope to do is help prepare them for when they walk out that door," said Stickels, who with social work professor Jaimie Page is studying ways to ease the former inmates’ transition to the free world.

That research has received a significant boost. The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Austin announced Tuesday that the study project has been awarded an $80,990 grant.

"This grant will help [Page and Stickels] address an area of mental health that has long been overlooked," said Dr. Octavio Martinez Jr., executive director of the foundation. "Exonerees deserve and should receive the resources needed to re-establish their lives."

In the last decade, more than 30 prisoners in Texas and 200 nationally have been exonerated, most of them by using DNA testing to establish their innocence, said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, which has collaborated with the UT-Arlington project.

Kudos to the Hogg Foundation and Jaimie Page at UTA for being pro-active to address a problem that didn't really exist on the scale it does now before the rise of DNA testing.

Speaking of which, the Dallas News yesterday interviewed recent exoneree Patrick Waller to see how he's doing heading into his first, post-incarceration Turkey Day and ask him what he's thankful for - there's definitely a lot, as described in this hopeful piece. I'm glad to read that he's faring better than some of the other exonerees who've gotten out, particularly those who lack strong family support.


Anonymous said...

My impression was that monies were given to exonerees or is that only as a result of a lawsuit?

Obviously, they should not continue to be punished.

Anonymous said...

Amen to the above post! Those who are released from prison should not continually be punished.

We have some terrible laws in Texas and we need to pray those who have made the laws and those who do not seem fit to change them, need to be removed for their positions. It is not wonder so many as soon as possible leave the State of Texas, our laws are horrible and very unfair. Some of our Legislators do not care but a few do and we need to get elect people who care and not those who just want so be the "tough guy" and continue to get re-elected over and over. Wake up people of Texas, far too many people are in our prisons and that system is draining our funds that could go to teachers, road repair and other places where some of those who are behind bars could work and get their lives back.

Once a person is released, that information should be removed from their record and let them start their lives again. If there were rehab in Texas Department of Criminal Justice, there were be many people who are rleased who are able to get a job, support a family or at lease have a chance to make a better life.

Of course I am not saying everyone should be released, but at least treat everyone they way you would want to be treated, we are all humans and children of the Lord.