Expunged records and monetary compensation are the least the state owes the wrongfully convicted | Editorial
The injustice of a wrongful conviction doesn’t end on the day an exonerated person walks out of the courthouse.
On Wednesday, Judge Leon W. Tucker told Willie Veasy, “You’re a free man.” Veasy served 27 years of a life-without-parole sentence he got in 1993 for a murder that he did not commit. The judge overturned his convictions and prosecutors from Larry Krasner’s office did not press new charges. Veasy’s exoneration is the 10th secured by Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
The injustice of being incarcerated for years for a crime that one did not commit is difficult to comprehend — and it doesn’t end on the day an exonerated person walks out of the courthouse. After enduring severe trauma, being disconnected from their social networks, and losing years of potential employment, people exonerated of crimes in Pennsylvania are left with nothing.
Pennsylvania is not among the 35 states that offer compensation to people after they were exonerated of a crime. According to the Innocence Project, compensation for the wrongfully convicted should include monetary compensation based on time served and immediate services including food, transportation, health care, and assistance with housing and education. The Innocence Project further argues for an official acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the state.
Without compensation, people who were removed from society for years because of wrongful convictions struggle to know where to start reintegrating. Terrance Lewis, a Philadelphian who was exonerated in May after serving 21 years in prison, is a cautionary tale; according to a recent profile in the criminal justice news website The Appeal, he is still without a permanent home and forced to keep all of his possessions in his car.
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Lewis filed a civil suit alleging rampant misconduct that led to his original conviction. Such suits are possible and could result in monetary damages, but they are also expensive, time-consuming, and often futile.
People who were wrongfully convicted also need to deal with the fact that their charges and convictions are public information, and many employers would not be savvy enough — or bother — to check if the conviction was overturned and that the prosecutors did not press charges again. Exonerees can apply to have their records expunged, but a nonsympathetic DA could challenge the petition.
For more than a decade, State Rep. James Roebuck Jr., a West Philly Democrat, has been trying to enact a bill that would automatically expunge the records of the wrongfully accused the moment they leave the court as free people. He says that he has been surprised by the pushback that he received — which led him to not even attempt to introduce legislation to provide compensation. He reintroduced a version of the bill this session.
State Rep. Chris Rabb, a North Philly Democrat, has said that he is currently drafting wrongfully convicted compensation legislation that he plans to introduce soon.
There is no way for the state to reverse the clock and give back the years taken away from people who have been wrongfully convicted. The bare minimum is for the state to expunge all records related to the case and provide monetary compensation to all exonerees. Wrongful convictions are miscarriages of justice, made even worse when the state doesn’t acknowledge its mistake or the severe damage that mistake inflicts.