In 1997, Rodney Reed was convicted of murder, ending a lengthy investigation into the death of a young woman named Stacey Stites. But to Reed, the case was never really closed; he strongly avows his innocence. Almost 23 years later, the public seems to agree with him: Nearly 3 million people have rallied around Reed’s innocence by signing a petition urging the state of Texas to grant him a retrial.Now, as advocates push for this new trial, his execution date has been indefinitely halted; for Reed, freedom is literally a matter of life and death.
Still, the fight for justice doesn’t stop if Reed finally walks free. After decades incarcerated, Reed will look to rebuild the life—the job, the family, and the mental health—that he lost to an undeserved prison sentence. If released, Reed will be relatively lucky as the state of Texas is required give him a base compensation of $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, plus access to re-entry services like job search assistance and counseling. But Reed’s case is not unique, and these necessary tools for re-entry are not offered to exonerees in most states. And because miscarriages of justice make up an estimated one to five percent of total convictions in the US, implementing compensation and re-entry laws in all states is absolutely necessary to protect the wrongfully convicted.
The threat of wrongful conviction is especially dire for people of color, who face a higher probability of being unjustly incarcerated. Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and twelve times more likely to be wrongfully convicted on drug charges than white people. In a series of police scandals involving the framing of innocent defendants, Black people were also victimized at disproportionately high rates. Today, over 2,500 people have been exonerated (not counting “group exonerations,” such as those used during police scandals), but Black people—just 13.4 percent of the total US population—make up 50 percent of those exonerees.
Furthermore, whether innocent or guilty, exonerated or incarcerated, members of minority communities tend to receive harsher penalties, such as life sentences and capital punishment, which make wrongful imprisonment even more dangerous. Due to administrative backlogs, incarcerated people often spend extra time in prison—sometimes long enough to surpass their original sentence—before being paroled or released. For the wrongfully imprisoned, this results in an average of 14 years behind bars before being granted their rightful freedom. Being locked up in this way results in a deprivation of freedom that certainly has severe consequences for exonerees.
In order to begin the healing process for those unfairly victimized by the justice system, states must try to put a price on wrongful imprisonment. Without tangible reparations, the flaws of the US criminal justice system are only perpetuated. Therefore, state governments must start making progress by establishing a consistent, higher base compensation rate among reforms that grant opportunities for employment, counseling, and education for the wrongfully convicted.
As of now, reparations for wrongful imprisonment (except in federal cases) are decided by individual state governments, which has resulted in dramatic state-by-state disparities. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of a compensation statute while 15 states have none at all. Yet even within states boasting a compensation process, each state’s implementation differs greatly. For example, DC vaunts a compensation rate of $200,000 per year of wrongful incarceration; Vermont’s ranges from $30,000 to $60,000 per year.
Despite past recommendations from the federal government for a base rate of $63,000, only nine states offer compensation rates above $50,000 per year. Even in these states though, base compensation is not always guaranteed. Exonerees must file claims to anywhere from a Board of Claims (as in Wisconsin) to a County Supreme Court (as in Washington) in order to receive any support at all, throwing them back into often long, rarely cheap court proceedings. These shortcoming can only be rectified by sweeping, coast-to-coast compensation reform. And because state compensation statutes remain out of control of the federal government, it is up to the state legislatures to do the right and necessary thing and implement higher minimum base compensation rates that can be obtained without jumping through legal hoops.
While monetary compensation may not be a perfect substitute for years beyond bars, it’s still vital in order to give victims the opportunity to rebuild their lives after prison. A prison sentence can catapult a person into poverty, a possibility that is greater for those who already experience a racial wealth divide. Even after release, many exonerees’ criminal records are not expunged, their community ties severed; as a result, many exonerees face unemployment discrimination. With access to neither jobs nor compensation, exonerees often become financially dependent on others and struggle to reclaim a sense of normalcy. Thus, implementing proper financial reparations would prevent people who are already socioeconomically disadvantaged from finding themselves in an even deeper hole. If states also worked to provide job search assistance and employment opportunities to the wrongfully imprisoned, they may begin to break the cycle of economic dependency by providing a means for exonerees to support themselves.
Just as terrible as the economic consequences of imprisonment, however, are the implications on exonerees’ mental health. Some exonerees even resort to criminal activity after years of working to prove their innocence. But in a study of post-exoneration recidivism rates, exonerees compensated at a threshold of $500,000 were significantly less likely to recidivate than those awarded less or no compensation at all. Without compensation, therefore, recidivism is an especially pressing issue, along with other consequences of poor mental health, like suicide. Some exonerees have even taken their own lives because of what one victim’s mother called an “inability to adjust to life on the outside.”
Importantly, the movement towards the fair treatment of victims of miscarriages of justice, and the elimination of harmful effects like these, is not a counter to movements that work to end all types of imprisonment; rather, it’s a necessary complement. The same factors that make wrongful convictions especially atrocious—racially biased sentencing, in-prison violence, post-release PTSD, and more—ought to be done away for all people who are convicted of crimes. By rallying around miscarriages of justice and reforms like base compensation rates, counseling, and employment help, states can ensure that the justice system does no further harm to those it has already taken as its most overt victims while simultaneously examining the need for systemic change to the structures that make wrongful convictions so devastating.
Although base rates of financial compensation cannot completely heal the scars of wrongful convictions, they are still an essential reform because they offer a tangible way to begin healing post-incarceration. With the state putting sufficient money into their pockets, victims may not have to choose between paying their bills and going to counseling. Instead, they could find the support they need to face the depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder that often accompany incarceration. If every state followed the lead of the 12 states currently offering counseling services in combination with financial reparations to their state’s wrongfully convicted, exonerees may finally have a real chance at life post-conviction.