The State of Illinois owes a debt to the innocent men and women who have been convicted in our justice system of crimes they didn't commit and then been forced to serve years -- sometimes decades -- of wrongful imprisonment.
It isn't easy to quantify this debt. Imprisonment, particularly in an Illinois maximum security prison, is a waking nightmare. Prisoners live in perfect isolation, deprived not only of a supportive and loving community but also of any meaningful opportunity for privacy and reflection. Ex-cons describe prison the way veterans talk about combat: long stretches of boredom interrupted with short bursts of terror. These days, prisoners are warehoused, with little or no opportunity for recreation, employment or education. It is not uncommon for Illinois maximum security prisoners to spend most of their days locked in tiny cells. Perhaps most painful, prisoners watch helplessly as life's rhythms move on without them. They miss out on countless family birthdays, holidays, weddings and funerals and become like strangers to their own families. All of this pain and loss is incalculable.
For the wrongfully convicted, these privations come with the knowledge that the punishment is undeserved. Who would not give in to bitterness and rage as he watched his life waste away -- taken from him by a false and arbitrary conviction with no basis in fact?
These experiences are psychologically shattering. The pain and the rage do not go away when the wrongfully convicted inmate finally walks out of the prison gate. It isn't just the daunting practical dilemmas: how, for example, do you find a job when there is a gap of ten, fifteen or twenty years in your resume? How do you build a family when you've had no experience of personal intimacy for years or decades? For most, there are also nightmares, cold sweats, anxiety, intense and overwhelming phobias -- the classic symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
For all of these reasons, the state's debt is a very large one -- in every case.
Our system doesn't begin to repay what's owed. The Illinois Court of Claims Act permits an award to the victims of wrongful incarceration that maxes out at around $200,000.00 for persons who have spent at least 14 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit. This is less than $15,000 per year, and it's not enough. In fact, it would compensate people wrongfully subjected to the hell of prison with the wages of poverty.
Republican State Senator John Millner -- lately in the news for his vocal support of the state's discarded death penalty system -- has another bad idea. He's introduced a bill that would increase the State compensation for the wrongfully convicted to a still-meager $85,000.00 per year (plus any child support arrearage) and would bar anyone who accepts the money from bringing a civil rights case.
Many of the wrongfully convicted have also filed civil rights lawsuits in the federal and state courts. Those suits are notoriously difficult to win. The plaintiff must prove that his wrongful conviction was caused by willful police misconduct, not mere negligence. He must overcome a host of immunity and other defenses designed to protect prosecutors and other actors in the criminal justice system.
Not surprisingly, the results in those cases have been decidedly mixed: James Newsome, who spent 15 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, received $15 million and Juan Johnson got $21 million jury verdict for 11 and a half years. On the other hand, Anthony Porter, who spent over a decade on death row and came within 50 hours of execution for a crime he didn't commit, lost his case and got nothing. Michael Evans also lost and got nothing -- despite enduring 27 years of wrongful imprisonment. These results are as arbitrary and unfair to the losers as the wrongful imprisonment itself.
We need a simple, fair procedure. Any person who can show that he was convicted of a crime he did not commit should be entitled to present his claim for compensation to a jury. The jury should be instructed to award that person an amount sufficient to fully and fairly compensate him for lost freedom, for pain and suffering and for any ongoing consequences of the wrongful imprisonment. The state should pay the amount that the jury decides. Period. Then we could skip the civil rights suits, as Millner suggests. But Millner's legislation would also skip the part where victims of wrongful imprisonment are given the opportunity for full and fair compensation for all that's been taken from them, physically, emotionally, psychologically and financially.
Millner is all about fiscal austerity. He opposes tax increases (they're "reckless") and he wants "stricter residency and means testing for social programs." But compensating the wrongfully convicted is the State's moral obligation to persons who've had a hole torn in their lives because the Illinois criminal justice system failed. The amount Millner is proposing might cover lost wages, but it doesn't begin to compensate the terrible pain and suffering these men and women have endured.
By all means, let's get tough on waste in government. But we cheapen ourselves if we fail to make whole those who've been horribly wounded by dysfunction in our criminal justice system.
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