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November 10, 2014

Exonerated prisoners face uphill climb to regain their lives

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Drew Whitley served 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. When he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2006, he was left with no money from the state and no idea of how to rebuild his life.

Only 29 states and Washington, D.C. have laws that provide compensation for people who were wrongfully convicted of crimes after their release.

Even in states that offer compensation, the amount varies according to state laws. The federal government has recommended that states pay $50,000 for every year of wrongful imprisonment. Florida pays exonerees $50,000 per year and provides 120 hours of tuition at a school or career center. Texas pays exonerees $80,000 for each year they were imprisoned and offers medical help and job training after they leave prison. New Hampshire pays $20,000.

Once exonerees leave prison, they are far from guaranteed to a normal life, according to Bill Moushey, a journalism professor at Point Park University who investigates cases of wrongful imprisonment. Some states have programs to help with job searching and re-integration into society, but many exonerees do not receive that treatment.

“They are just thrown on the scrapheap of life like they were the day they walked into prison. And the only difference is, is that they’re only prisoners of their own homes now and not of the state,” he said.

The Innocence Project, an organization that addresses wrongful conviction, recommends that states provide a number of resources to help exonerees re-enter society, including money for food and transportation, help with finding affordable housing and jobs, legal help and job training.

Exonerees can also get compensation by suing the state, like Jeffrey Deskovic, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and served more than 15 years in prison. New York State paid him more than $13 million, part of which he used to set up a foundation to investigate other cases of wrongful conviction and support exonerees.

“I feel like I’m making a difference. And I’m trying to make my suffering count for something,” he said.


Warm up questions
  1. Have you ever been blamed for something that you didn’t do? How did it make you feel?
  2. What is DNA? How can it be used in criminal cases?
  3. Imagine that you were sent to prison at age 18 and released when you were 30. What important events in your life might you miss out on? How do you think losing those years would affect the rest of your life?
Critical thinking questions
  1. What role does technology play in wrongful conviction cases? What is genetic fingerprinting and how can it be used to exonerate wrongly imprisoned individuals?
  2. Do you think that being compensated $20,000 -$50,000 a year for each year spent in prion is enough? Are there other things besides monetary compensation that should be provided?
  3. What challenges do wrongfully incarcerated prisoners face upon release? How do organizations like the Innocence Project and state programs help to ease the transition?
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