After Exoneration: Multiple Challenges, Harsh Welcome

Wrongfully convicted persons are often provided less assistance in exiting prison than guilty convicts departing after completing their sentence. When Michael Williams left a Louisiana prison after serving 24 years for a rape he didn’t commit, he was given ten dollars and a bus ticket. But that was just the beginning of his problems. Many exonerees quickly discover a new, challenging, and lonely world. Bruce Fischer has written an excellent article here that details the difficulties faced by the wrongfully convicted after release from prison.

Exonerees often must engage legal assistance to receive some measure of restoration and compensation. In spite of their exoneration, they may have to pursue legal expungement of their record, critical to attempts to land a job or fully participate in society. Other barriers requiring legal assistance delay compensation, which can be far below the federal recommendation of $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration. It took Williams four years of legal efforts to receive $150,000, a paltry $6,250 for each year stolen from him.

Unfortunately, financial challenges are just the beginning. As Fischer’s article points out, a New York Times study of 137 exonerees revealed that half struggled to survive. Inability to find a job or hold one, homelessness and dependency, battles with addiction, symptoms of “post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and premature aging” are part of the reality of re-entry into a world that has changed dramatically. Even connecting with family can be very difficult and awkward, and another disheartening reminder of all that has been missed or lost.

Recently it was reported here that Marcus Lyons was awarded a $5 million dollar settlement for two and a half years spent in prison for a rape he did not commit. Lyons pointed out that the award would never buy back his name, his dreams, his life.

In 1987 he was 29, in the Navy Reserves with no criminal record, about to get a computer science degree, with dreams of returning to the Navy and commanding a ship. Instead, he was misidentified, convicted of rape, and served 2.5 years in prison. When he was released from prison, he was forced to register as a sex offender, and he had difficulty finding work. He struggled with relationships and never married or had children. In 2006, he spent his own $10,000 to pay for DNA tests. They linked to another man, who wasn’t charged because the statute of limitations had run out. Lyons’s conviction was dismissed and in 2008 then-Governor Rod Blagojevich pardoned him.

The $5 million dollar settlement was compensation not only for Lyons’s few years of wrongful incarceration. It was for the wrongful label of rapist that denied him work, and contributed to lost hopes for relationships, a wife and family, and pursuits that most Americans take for granted. It was for never having had the chance to command his ship.

When the state makes the horrendous error of convicting and incarcerating an innocent person, we as a nation should recognize the moral obligation not only to financially compensate at the federal standard, but also to do all possible to assist in reentry to society, to restore the wrongfully convicted as much as possible to a stable life. Support in the form of transitional assistance,  job and career training, health care, and counseling should be the price willingly paid for an error for which we can never fully compensate.

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