One of the haunting experiences that I had during my annual week of service on the Gulf Coast with students, did not come from victims of Hurricanes’ Katrina or Rita, or their consequences. It came form meeting two men who had served over 20 years each in jail for crimes that neither had committed. One had been on death row. These two men were exonerated because of the use of DNA testing in post-conviction criminal cases. DNA testing has helped exonerate more than 250 innocent people. These innocent men and women sat in prison for an average of 13 years.
It is hard to imagine. My eyes filled with tears when one told us of the son or daughter that he had never held. He was now in the process of getting to know his now grown up child. How can a person be compensated for this? Any aspiration he once had for a good education and career have long disappeared.
“Depending on the state, the wrongfully convicted could get social services and up to $80,000 per year–or get nothing at all. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., provide compensation and/or services, but many states have provisions that could make an exoneree ineligible for such damages, including having a prior felony conviction or submitting a guilty plea when not guilty. Twenty-three states have no provisions, but the exonerated could sue or request compensation through a private bill, requiring a legislator to sponsor it–both options are difficult to pursue.”
Ms. Trenker then introduced (for me at least) an organization called The Innocence Project, which is an advocacy group who would like every state to have an exoneree compensation law that reflects the guidelines set out on a federal level. Current federal guidelines: Provide the wrongly incarcerated up to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, and $100,000 per year served on death row. “The beauty of a compensation statute is that it provides a formula that treats everyone equally,” says Rebecca Brown, policy advocate for The Innocence Project.
I believe it is important to financially compensate exonerees and ensure that they can live out the rest of their lives with dignity and meaning. There is an important place for an advocacy group such The Innocence Project.
But I can’t loose the image of the man in New Orleans, who never got to hold his child and now must pick up the pieces with his adult child. There are some things that you cannot put a price on.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).