The financial, psychological and physical burdens of wrongful convictions cannot be overstated.

Shareholder John S. Summers and associate Dina L. Grove, who work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted through the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, recently published this op-ed piece on, with co-author Elise Singer. The essay discusses the fact that Pennsylvania does not have a law mandating any support or compensation for the wrongfully convicted, and argues that the state must move to right this wrong by providing some level of compensation for exonerees. You can read the article, originally published on on September 27, 2016, below.

Pennsylvania Needs a Law To Compensate the Wrongfully Convicted: Another View

By John S. Summers, Elise E. Singer & Dina L. Grove Op-Ed
September 27, 2016

The advent of DNA testing, first accepted in 1989, has rendered indisputable the fact that our criminal justice system does not always get it right.

The National Registry of Exonerations counts more than 1,878 men and women, now free, who were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated since 1989.

In Pennsylvania, 58 men and women who collectively spent nearly 684 years behind bars, have been exonerated.

The exonerations of Anthony Wright – released last month after serving 25 years in prison – Jim Fogle, who served 34 years in prison, and Crystal Weimer, wrongly imprisoned for 11 years, are the most recent reminder that our criminal judicial system is not flawless.

While these three fellow citizens have been freed, manifest injustice continues because Pennsylvania offers them no support and no compensation for their lost years and lives.

It is long overdue for Pennsylvania to move one step further to right the terrible wrong they have suffered by providing some level of compensation for our exonerees.

While flawed, a bill sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, would provide reasonable compensation to those wrongfully convicted and incarcerated.

There are many good reasons for the bill, which has garnered by bipartisan support. Not least is the fact that Pennsylvania, unlike New Jersey and New York, is in the minority of states that has no provision for compensation.

Burdens of Wrongful Convictions

First, the financial, psychological and physical burdens of wrongful convictions cannot be overstated.

The financial burdens are obvious – a person who is in prison cannot earn income, save for retirement, develop skills or establish themselves professionally.

What’s more, once out of prison, an exonoree’s job application contains a blank period of time that must be explained. It simply is not possible to recover the years that were lost.

The psychological and physical burdens of incarceration are also substantial.

Prisoners have a significantly greater need for physical and mental health services than the population as a whole.

Consider the far greater burden for an individual who knew throughout their incarceration that they were innocent and should never have been in prison.

Worse still, exonorees face a cruel paradox:  while released offenders are eligible for vocational and job training, released wrongfully convicted men and women are ineligible for these benefits.

Yes, you read it correctly: someone who had been wrongfully convicted does not qualify for the housing assistance, health care, and job training offered released offenders.

There is no justification for treating the wrongfully incarcerated worse than a released offender.

Recent empirical research also shows that appropriate post-release compensation can reduce the likelihood that an exonerated individual will engage in a post-release offense.

While it is difficult to value the lives lost, other states that have adopted compensation schemes award $50,000 a year for each year spent wrongfully imprisoned and $100,000 for each year wrongfully spent on death row.

The Greenleaf bill follows that approach, in part, and would be a start at putting an exonoree back on his or her feet.

Justice Requires Compensation to the Wrongfully Convicted

In addition, our society’s most basic notions of fairness dictate that the Commonwealth compensate those wrongfully convicted.

The reasons for wrongful convictions are many, and never the fault of the wrongly convicted individual.

The leading causes are eyewitness misidentification, unreliable jailhouse informants, ineffective representation by counsel, unreliable scientific evidence or expert testimony, and police or prosecutorial error, and wholly outside the control of those who are convicted of crimes they did not commit.

There are currently many obstacles that prevent the compensation of exonorees.  Often there is no “bad actor” but rather simply a mistaken witness identification, or other systemic error.

Law enforcement has a variety of immunities that make it difficult for an exonoree to recover in a lawsuit.

Very few exonorees succeed when they seek to bring either a federal civil rights lawsuit or a state tort lawsuit.

The government compensates a property owner when it uses the power of eminent domain to seize his or her property for a public good.

The Pennsylvania Constitution provides that private property should not be taken without compensation.

When an individual’s liberty is taken in error for a public purpose, the preservation of public safety through the operation of the criminal justice, the right to compensation should be recognized. The government should compensate an individual whose liberty was wrongfully taken.

While not without flaws, the Greenleaf bill is a good start The bill is now before Greenleaf’s committee, where it has sat since its introduction in May.

Greenleaf’s proposal provides that a wrongfully convicted and incarcerated person may receive $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration.

This amount is less than that afforded under a federal statute ($63,000 per year) and that of other states (e.g., Texas provides up to $80,000 per year), but it is not capped and an award would not be subject to state or federal taxation.

In addition, the bill contains safeguards. A claimant must make a claim within two years of release, or five years of the bill’s passage. They would have the burden of demonstrating their actual innocence.

All claims would be presented and heard by Commonwealth Court.

Finally, the bill is not a hand out. It was crafted to include eligibility requirements to be overseen by Commonwealth Court.

Undue expense also can’t be a basis to object as there have been only slightly more than 50 exonorees in Pennsylvania to date.

As hard as everyone in the criminal justice system tries to avoid wrongful convictions and incarceration, some errors are inevitable.

When those errors are identified and it is undisputed that an individual has been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated, the least the Commonwealth can and should do is provide those innocent citizens compensation.

The Greenleaf bill does that.

This article was originally published on, on September 27, 2016. All Rights Reserved ©2016

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