(Image via The Philadelphia Gay News)
Being incarcerated is a life-altering experience. If you’re the imprisoned person, trying to reassemble your life after serving your debt to society can take years, if not decades. If you are the survivor of a crime, you also often face years of recovery.
But what about the wrongly imprisoned? The data are a matter for pause.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint effort between the University of California Irvine, and the University of Michigan and Michigan State University’s law schools, 161 people were exonerated in 2021, with each person losing an average of 11.5 years of their lives.
Instances of official misconduct occurred in at least 102 exonerations in 2021. Fifty-nine homicide cases — 77 percent of murder and manslaughter exonerations in 2021 — were the result of official misconduct, the data showed. And Pennsylvania accounted for seven of those exonerations last year, the registry’s 2021 report showed.
Now, two Pennsylvania lawmakers are asking their colleagues to back a bill that would provide some redress to the wrongfully imprisoned by allowing them to seek compensation for the years they’ve lost behind bars.
“When an individual is wrongfully convicted and incarcerated the consequences are devastating not only to them but their families and friends,” Reps. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, and Regina G. Young, D-Philadelphia, wrote in an Aug. 25 memo seeking sponsors for their bill.
“Individuals are not only deprived of their liberty, but they miss holidays, birthdays, and other important life events,” they continued. “They undoubtedly will suffer negative economic and professional consequences as well.”
The average “cost” of a wrongful conviction is an estimated $6.1 million, or $1,334 per-day of incarceration, according to a 2021 paper by Vanderbilt University Law School professor Mark Cohen.
Right now, 38 states, Washington D.C. and the federal government provide some kind of compensation or payment to the wrongfully convicted, according to data compiled by The Innocence Project.
In their memo, Ryan and Young argue that Pennsylvania, one of 12 states without a compensation statute, should enact its own law “to ensure that exonerated individuals are appropriately compensated for the liberty they have been denied and given the necessary resources and services to succeed after being released from their wrongful incarceration.”
Under their proposal, a person seeking compensation must show “by a preponderance” of the evidence that they:
- “Were convicted of a felony.
- “Were sentenced to incarceration based on the conviction and they have served all or any part of the sentence.
- “Did not commit the crime that resulted in the conviction or there was no crime committed.
- “Received either a pardon, that the charges were dismissed following reversal, or that they were acquitted upon retrial after the conviction was reversed or overturned,” and
- “Were not convicted of any lesser included offense arising from the same transaction as the crime for which they were originally convicted,” Ryan and Young wrote.
If someone successfully proves all those things, the proposal calls for them to be awarded damages based on how long they were incarcerated and how long they spent on parole.
Tough on crime Texas, for instance, provides “the wrongfully convicted $80,000 per year and an annuity set at the same amount,” according to The Innocence Project.
And, in addition to any monetary compensation, “these damages can include child support an individual may have incurred while they were incarcerated, reasonable attorney fees, and compensation for any reasonable reintegrative services and mental and physical health care costs they incurred,” the two lawmakers wrote.
And, they added, “this legislation also provides various services, resources and assistance for individuals who are wrongfully convicted regardless if they are seeking compensation.”
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