Not Guilty—But Not Free 

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Photo by Nicholas Cardot via Flickr

Earlier this year, Richard Phillips—wrongfully convicted and locked up for 47 years— was finally exonerated and released at the age of 72. His reentry into society should be a happy occasion, but Phillips now faces an entirely new set of challenges.

When the state makes such a grave mistake, you would assume there would be a protocol to help Phillips transition back into the real world.

Not so.

Phillips said there are programs in place for former prisoners, but when you have been declared not guilty “You’re on your own.”  Since his release, Phillips has been slowly trying to rebuild his life. He has applied for financial assistance as well as new IDs, since his were all lost while he was incarcerated.

Richard Phillips

Richard Phillips. Photo from Michigan Department of Corrections

Phillips’ dilemma raises a larger issue regarding the lack of support for those exonerated of crimes they did not commit. While not all states impose ongoing restrictions on exonerees, most do little to help exonerees get back on their feet after prison.

This leaves many struggling to find employment, housing and, most of all, mental health treatment. The state has a fundamental obligation to help exonerees return to society. They should be doing more to uphold this obligation.

The mental health burdens on the wrongly convicted are tremendous, as case after case demonstrates.

After his exoneration, Gary Gauger—who was wrongfully sentenced to death in 1994 for the murder of his parents—wouldn’t leave home unless forced to do so.

Another exoneree named Earl Charles—who described his wrongful conviction as a “scar,”committed suicide in 1991 by walking into oncoming traffic. Darryl Hunt, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, killed himself in a parking lot. Roy Criner, who spent 10 years in prison before being exonerated, says he has attempted suicide three times.

This is the stuff of nightmares.

Exonerees are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit— an injustice in itself that most people could not imagine. They then return to a society that may still think they committed the crime despite their exoneration. The world they return to after years—sometimes decades—behind bars is often completely different from the one they left.

Exonerees struggle to find employment, as they are not entitled to their former jobs and their arrest record can still appear on background checks. They often speak of lacking a social support system and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other chronic health conditions.

Given that they have to try to reconcile and come to terms with their experience of wrongful imprisonment, exonerees might have the highest incidence of PTSD of all former inmates.

A little over half of states have compensation statutes for the wrongfully convicted. Moreover, state compensation mechanisms severely limit those who may qualify for compensation and cap the amount of recovery at artificially-low levels. A study by the Innocence Project found that only 37 percent of those exonerated receive any funding from the state at all.

Unlike parolees and probationers, exonerees often don’t have services to help them re-enter society. Only three states have dedicated re-entry services for the exonerated. Given that exonerees shouldn’t be “re-entering” in the first place, this makes no sense.

Given the challenges we know the formerly incarcerated face when they return to society, this state of affairs is appalling. While we can never truly right the wrong of placing an innocent person behind bars, at the very least, we should provide compensation and re-entry services to help these individuals get back on their feet.

Nia Bala

Nia Bala

And we certainly should not continue to supervise them when they should never have been behind bars in the first place.

The way we treat exonerees—those who have been fundamentally wronged by the government in the most unimaginable way possible—should horrify us. Phillips and the thousands of other individuals who have been exonerated deserve better.

Nila Bala is a senior criminal justice fellow at the R Street Institute and a former assistant public defender of Baltimore. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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