You're walking down the street, peacefully minding your own business. Suddenly, a stranger points to you and says, "He did it." Police officers frisk you, knock you around a bit, handcuff you, and throw you in jail. They tell you that an eyewitness has identified you as the perpetrator of a rape. Or maybe a murder.
You're innocent, so you look forward to the opportunity to clear your name in a court of law. But you cannot afford a top-notch defense attorney, so the court assigns an overworked novice public defender to your case. He drops the ball. You are found guilty, and you spend the next several years in one of the most horrible settings on this planet.
If you're lucky, maybe DNA or other evidence will eventually surface to prove your innocence.
And, if you're lucky, maybe the court will agree to admit that evidence and give you a new trial.
And, if you're lucky, maybe your conviction will be overturned and you will be exonerated.
But there's a good chance that this is where your luck will end. The nightmare of your wrongful conviction is far from over.
As compensation for the years you spent behind bars for a crime you did not commit, the state might give you $10 and a bus ticket.
And that $10 might well be all that you own now. Studies have shown that over 90 percent of exonerees in the U.S. lost all their assets, including their savings, vehicles, and homes, while imprisoned.
Newly free, you try to find work and rebuild your life. But prospective employers often do a background check, and they learn of that conviction on your record. Most states do not automatically expunge the records of exonerees, and expungement is an expensive undertaking that isn't always successful. So you get work where you can - most likely in a low-paying job like taxi driving or janitorial work.
Sound far-fetched? Think it could never happen to you? Guess again. I recently met two men who learned these things the hard way right here in Pennsylvania. And they are just the tip of the iceberg.
In this country to date, nearly 400 wrongfully convicted individuals have been exonerated after conclusively proving their innocence. Some were on death row, and were lucky to have had the chance to prove their innocence prior to their execution dates.
The system must change. The state must not continue to punish the innocent after their names have been cleared.
For starters, all states should implement the following three measures:
1. Expungement: A criminal conviction must not mar the permanent record of an innocent person. An exoneree's record should be automatically cleared when a conviction is overturned. Any records of these cases should be sealed, and should not be available to potential employers, credit agencies, or other parties who might do a background check.
2. Compensation: Currently, only 17 jurisdictions provide exonerees with financial compensation. When they do, it is often woefully inadequate. While no amount of money could ever make up for the lost years and suffering of the wrongfully convicted, states should provide exonerees with adequate funds to build a new life.
3. Social services: Most states do not have social programs in place for exonerees as they do for parolees. So, if you're innocent, there's less help for you on the outside than there would be if you were actually guilty! Returning to life on the outside is difficult. Exonerees often require assistance with housing, finding employment, and obtaining medical, dental, and psychological care. These services should be provided by the state, since the state's own misjudgments were responsible for creating the need.
It's the least we can do.
Until these changes take place, our criminal justice system cannot be called just.