Post Release and Compensation

Even in states where compensation is legislated, victims of wrongful convictions are often denied compensation because of technicalities or standards that limit the amount of compensation awards. In the minority of states that do have compensation statutes, the statutes are usually both excessively restrictive in identifying who will be compensated and contain artificially low caps on the amount of recovery.

Although Timothy Atkins was incarcerated for 23 years for a crime he did not commit, his claim for compensation was rejected by the Victim Compensation & Government Claims Board, the ruling body overseeing claims against the state. Interestingly, the judge who presided over the trial in which Atkins was convicted was still on the bench more than twenty years later, and presided over the evidentiary hearing in which the California Innocence Project presented evidence of Atkins’s innocence. In reversing Atkins’s conviction, the judge found that the testimony presented against Atkins at his original trial was false, and that he was innocent of his crimes. However, the compensation board made a different determination and denied him the statutory $100.00 per day. Atkins was given nothing. The compensation board’s decision is unfathomable given the fact that the judge who exonerated him was knowledgeable about Atkins’s entire case and able to determine the reliability of the witnesses in two full trials, and the board heard only limited evidence.

Other stories of the denial of compensation are easy to come by. After spending nearly two decades behind bars, Alan Northrop was exonerated of rape based on new DNA evidence. To read about his story and the issue of compensation in general, click here. Both Herman Atkins, Sr. and Calvin Johnson, Jr. were exonerated and released after decades of incarceration and were given no support as they reintegrated into society. To hear them speak about their experiences first hand, click here.

Post-release, the exonerated face numerous challenges when trying to put their lives back together. Whereas inmates who are paroled are generally given a couple hundred dollars and services that help them integrate back into society, when innocent inmates are released, they receive no money and there are rarely post-release programs to help them adapt. In addition to financial compensation, advocates agree that non-monetary compensation should be provided and should include reentry services immediately upon release that are at least comparable to those received by parolees. These services should also be tailored to the distinct needs of wrongfully convicted individuals. 

Inmates are often exonerated and released with much fanfare and publicity. After their fifteen minutes of fame are over, the exonerated are left with scars from years of pain and frustration spent fighting a system that often fails to acknowledge its mistakes and even more rarely offers an apology. Some exonerees, like Timothy Atkins, were incarcerated from the time they were juveniles and literally grew up in a cold and unyielding correctional system. Although many of the exonerated possess unfathomable courage, determination, and heart, to assume that the exonerated will have the skills and psychological muster to make their way unassisted in a world that has become foreign to them is naive at best. While many experts agree that the wrongfully incarcerated deserve compensation post-release, the justice system is slow to respond and those who have suffered years, sometimes decades of wrongful incarceration struggle to make lives for themselves.

For more information about compensation, see:

Victor Merina, The Price of Wrongful Conviction, California Lawyer Magazine (November 2012) (focusing on the struggle of Tim Atkins to receieve state compensation).
Adele Bernhard, Justice Still Fails: A Review of Recent Efforts to Compensate Individuals Who Have Been Unjustly Convicted and Later Exonerated, 52 Drake L. Rev. 703 (2004), (criticizing states’ inaction in creating generous compensation schemes)

Adele Bernhard, When Justice Fails: Indemnification for Unjust Conviction, 6 U. Chi. L. Sch. Roundtable 73 (1999) (arguing that more states should enact comprehensive statutes).