Humans are not perfect. A fortiori, our criminal justice system cannot always achieve just or accurate results.
Illustrative of this point is the fact that many people have been incarcerated for allegedly committing a crime only to later be exonerated by DNA evidence. When these people are exonerated and set free, they often face substantial obstacles while transitioning back into society. To help minimize these obstacles, many states provide financial and social services to exonerated individuals.
Wisconsin does provide compensation for exonerated individuals, but compared to other states across the country, it is a dismal amount. The Wrongly Convicted Reentry Act, which is slowly making its way through the Wisconsin Legislature, would increase the compensation for exonerated individuals. I urge the state Legislature to enact this much needed measure.
Since our criminal justice system depends on the human judgment of police officers, witnesses, attorneys, judges and jurors, it is a certainty that there will be some erroneous results. Therefore, it is imperative that, as a society, we create sufficient safeguards to ensure that innocent people are not incarcerated.
This idea underlies William Blackstone’s aphorism that “It [is] better that 10 guilty persons escape, than one innocent party suffer.” But so far, we have not prevented innocent people from being incarcerated. In fact, according to the Innocence Project, there have been 311 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States history.
When we wrongly incarcerate an innocent person, it is our collective obligation and responsibility to help them transition back into society. This person will face substantial obstacles in transitioning back — for instance not being able to find employment because of the many barriers to having their wrongful convictions removed from their criminal record.
As Jack Healy noted in The New York Times, “Aside from the practical challenges — a criminal record can impede big things like finding housing and employment, and smaller things like getting a hunting license — people who have been exonerated say they feel unfairly marked, branded with a scarlet letter from a justice system that should not have locked them up in the first place.”
Not only do exonerated individuals face substantial obstacles to transitioning back into society, they have had one of their most fundamental rights taken away. Louis Brandeis once described this right as “the right to be let alone.”
In order to help alleviate these substantial obstacles to those who have been exonerated, many states have enacted laws that provide financial and social services to these individuals. Wisconsin has had a statute for more than a century that compensates people who have been exonerated, but according to the Wisconsin Innocence Project, “It has not been adjusted in over 25 years.”
This is problematic, especially since Wisconsin only provides $5,000 annually (for a period of time equal to the duration of false imprisonment) to an individual who has been exonerated. The state caps the total amount an individual can receive in compensation for their wrongful imprisonment at $25,000. The minimal assistance it offers exonerated individuals puts Wisconsin in second to last place or worse when it is compared to other states’ figures.
The Wrongly Convicted Reentry Act would substantially update Wisconsin’s antiquated compensation law for those who have been exonerated. As written, it “increases compensation from $5,000/year to the federal standard of $50,000/year, removes the overall cap and indexes the amount for inflation.” It also “provides transitional assistance and social services immediately upon release.”
This proposed legislation has bi-partisan support in the Legislature, but although it has been introduced in each of the last two years it has somehow eluded the governor’s desk. I urge the Legislature to ensure that this important bill becomes law.
Our criminal justice system is not perfect; it makes mistakes. When it does make mistakes, society has an obligation to correct them — this obligation includes compensating those who have been exonerated. The enactment of the Wrongly Convicted Reentry Act would be a substantial step in correcting these past miscarriages of justice.
Aaron Loudenslager ([email protected]) is a second year law student.