Monday, May 24, 2010

Compensation increased, but reentry transition still rocky for exonerees

The Texas Tribune reports that last week Christopher Scott and Claude Simmons became among the first Texas exonerees to receive compensation under Texas' new statute passed last year. But the story primarily focuses on the six months from the time they were released until compensation came through. Writes Erin Mulvaney ("The Price of Innocence," May 23):

“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.

I was proud of that legislation and extraordinarily pleased that it passed, but that doesn't mean it can't be tweaked and improved going forward.


ckikerintulia said...

If it requires legislation to fix this, then there must be legislation. There should be some kind of pool that these exonerees could draw from until the process is completed. Really these peoples' lives have been irreparably harmed. No way to make up for it. But the legislation needs to be tweaked to reduce the damage as much as possible. Maybe legal minds at the Innocence Project can work on the wording.

Anonymous said...

I think the cops and DA's that put the innocent in prison should shelter and feed them free of charge until the state kicks in the compensation. They've got couchs, don't they?

Anonymous said...

"I think the cops and DA's that put the innocent in prison should shelter and feed them free of charge until the state kicks in the compensation. They've got couchs, don't they?"

Best idea I've heard in a while.

Seriously, though. If the counties where these people were convicted had to pick up the tab directly, instead of the compensation coming from the state, there would be more pressure on DA's to make sure they are convicting the right people. It's a little off topic, but until there are some consequences for those who's careless, incompetent and often dishonest behavior results in these wrongful convictions, they will continue. The $80,000 per year should come from the county's budget where the conviction occurred. That might also cause some jurors to think a little harder about the evidence instead of just eating up whatever the prosecutor says.

Jennie said...

Anon 10:40 Very very good! It might break some counties though but I do think that a large percentage should come from the county or that the counties need to purchase insurance to cover this sort of thing.

However, my bigger concern is what kind of guidance are these people given? Depending on how long they have been inside, they must need all kinds of financial advice so they don't get taken or spend it all right away. Many things will changed for them. They might end up with all kinds coming out of the woodwork. Is there anything in place for that?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but the first people to be let out, and the FIRST to get any compensation should be exonerees. if they have to don't pay guards, or pull the salary from the DA that convicted them, but these guys should have a check in hand when the states puts them on a bus home. There is nothing worse that official oppression, and sentencing innocent people to prison, THEN pissing on them if they finally get out is just plain wrong.

Anonymous said...

As a law enforcement administrator I have to say this is a well-intentioned law. It is pathetic that a wrongfully convicted person would walk out of the door with nothing.

Knowing nothing about this program, where are funds for this program kept? Could TDCJ be required, in the same paperwork exonerating them, to give them some form of financial instrument?

Seems that at least a rechargable debit card would be relatively simple to implement. Heck, open them an account and electronically transfer some funds into it and give them a card.

Scott Stevens said...

While this won't be the complete solution, it would seem to be simple legislation to say that a person released under those conditions is entitled to all benefits/assistance he would have been entitled to if he/she had been released under parole.

The only sticky issue I can see, as far as this part of the solution, is intelligibly defining "those conditions," but someone more familiar with innocence project work than I should be able to do that without too much problem.

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