By Shamoyita DasGupta
About a month ago, I was sitting down to write the final paper for a Wrongful Convictions seminar course that I had taken earlier in the semester. This was actually a slightly difficult task since, compared to other subjects, there isn’t exactly a wealth of research about the wrongfully convicted. Eventually, I decided to write about rates of offense among exonerees – how often are they offending after they are released, and why? Again, with this subject being researched so little, there isn’t even a solid percentage that demonstrates how many exonerees are actually committing offenses after they are released, but what research I could find on the subject revealed that the main reasons this is happening have everything to do with how difficult we continue to make their lives once they’re released.
One of the primary reasons for this has to do with the effect of prison culture and labeling that comes with having spent so much time in prison among those who have actually committed the crimes for which they are incarcerated, according to a study that examined the need for services for the wrongfully convicted. Many exonerees enter prison when they are still quite young, sometimes in their formative teenage years. As a result, just as prisoners who are rightfully convicted succumb to “prisonization,” where they adapt to prison culture and adopt “criminal values, techniques, and subcultures,” so too do some exonerees, according to the study. Many exonerees also become accustomed to the rigid structures found in prison, so that when they are exposed to their newfound freedom and the ability to make decisions for themselves and do as they please, they are quite overwhelmed. The study pointed out that it’s an effect that becomes difficult to overcome once exonerees leave prison, so those who were incarcerated for longer periods of time are at even more risk of committing crimes after being released, since they had more time in prison for that effect to become ingrained. Additionally, this study noted that despite having been wrongfully convicted, exonerees still feel the shame and stigma of having been incarcerated and being labeled as a prisoner, which can further contribute to the likelihood that they will offend.
When exonerees leave prison, many of them have little to nothing. Their support systems have crumbled, with family members sometimes losing touch or passing away because of the extensive amount of time exonerees were incarcerated. As a result, money is tight, and exonerees without the support of their families struggle to become self-sufficient in a system that does not provide them any monetary compensation unless they fight for it. Many states still have yet to enact compensation statutes that don’t make it incredibly difficult for exonerees to collect compensation, and the amounts that exonerees are entitled to in different states are widely varying. Another study that examined compensation statutes in several states found that despite the fact that all exonerees should be entitled to compensation, only 41% of them actually receive any state compensation. The study found that when exonerees received compensation of $500,000 or more, they were far less likely to commit crimes upon release. Exonerees have already felt the consequences of the failings of the criminal justice system, and so those who receive little to no compensation are likely to feel further victimized, and even insulted, by the system than are those who receive larger sums of money, which only increases the chances that exonerees will commit crimes after they are released from prison.
Contributing even further to the struggle of supporting themselves after their release is the fact that it is extremely difficult for most exonerees to expunge their records. Despite having been wrongfully convicted, in the vast majority of states, unless exonerees file petitions for expungement, their records will continue to show that they have been convicted of a crime. A study that focused on expungement statutes and their effect on the wrongfully convicted noted that although most states have statutes that allow the convicted to file for expungement, only eleven states have statutes with language tailored specifically to the wrongfully convicted. The study found that those exonerees whose records have been cleared are less likely to commit crimes after they leave prison. Having criminal convictions on their records makes it difficult for exonerees to obtain employment, which further compounds their struggle to support themselves after they are released. The continued presence of a conviction on their records also lends itself to the feeling of stigmatization that exonerees feel as a result of their incarceration and wrongful conviction, according to the study. With all of this combined, the fact that expungement is difficult to come by makes it much more likely that exonerees will commit crimes to try and support themselves after they are released.
The most obvious solution is to change statutes, or even to write completely new ones, that apply just to exonerees, since the current statutes are embarrassingly inadequate. Compensation statutes provide varying sums of money, and it is often a long time before exonerees see any of it, with their lawyers being paid their percentage first. For those who file civil suits, these often last years, so if they are successful, again it is a while before exonerees see any payment. Expungement statutes can be complicated, the process of obtaining one can be arduous, and it can still be a long time before records are expunged. With the barriers that come with a lack of funds and continuing to have a criminal conviction on their records, exonerees are more likely to commit crimes when they are released to attempt to overcome these obstacles. Obviously changing the statutes or creating new ones is much easier said than done, but having statutes with language that takes into consideration what is owed to exonerees would go a long way to keep them from committing crimes and ending up back in prison when that is the last place they deserve to be.