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Financial Compensation for Wrongfully Convicted Individuals in Pennsylvania

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            A record 166 total exonerations occurred across America in 2016,  and 2,006 total exonerations are on record in our country.  Sixty state level exonerations have occurred in Pennsylvania, about one-third of which have occurred in Philadelphia county, which has been crippled by scandals involving sworn and elected officers of justice.  Of Pennsylvania’s exonerees, nineteen were enduring life sentences, nine were given life without parole, and four were sentenced to be executed by the state for crimes they did not commit.  The error rate for death penalty convictions is estimated at 4.1%, and is estimated to be much higher for non-death penalty cases.  This indicates at least seven innocent individuals are currently living on Pennsylvania’s death row, and presumably more than 2,100 innocent incarcerated persons statewide.  These statistics highlight a crisis within the criminal justice system that devalues human lives and undermines the very definition of justice.

            The prison experience, especially while innocent, produces a number of negative life and social outcomes, and the extent of these consequences cannot be quantified.  Having the freedom to support themselves and their families, as well as access to important support services and educational opportunities, requires resources and finances when exonerated.  Without being able to provide adequate housing, obtain gainful employment, and have access to the support services necessary for successful reentry, the frustrations and societal stigma that accompany being formerly incarcerated can act as a re-victimization by the system.

            Currently, 32 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have been successful in passing compensation statutes for wrongful convictions, but Pennsylvania has been woefully slow on addressing this issue and fulfilling a moral obligation to its citizenry.  Failure to financially compensate the wrongfully convicted in light of this alarming evidence sends a message to Pennsylvania’s residents that the commonwealth does not value their lives or feel a sense of responsibility for its mistakes.  Pennsylvania owes its residents an ethical and moral obligation to investigate and compensate claims of wrongful conviction.  The justice system promises to protect victims of crime, which must begin to incorporate victims of the justice system itself.

            The most important factors in reducing recidivism - adequate housing, employment, and health services - are all made more accessible when exonerees have the financial stability to meet their needs.  The vast majority of Pennsylvania’s incarcerated population are unskilled workers; and the average reading level is below a 9th grade comprehension level.  Financial compensation can help provide for exonerees and their families while they re-establish a life outside of prison; allow exonerees to take advantage of educational opportunities, participate in the economy, and be more productive and invested members of society.            

            There is also a racial component to wrongful convictions that further complicates and prioritizes this issue as a human rights concern.   The majority of black Americans feel that people of their race are treated unfairly both by the courts and police.  The data on race and exonerations in America prove that these feelings are justified.  Wrongful convictions for black defendants are seven times more likely in murder cases and twelve times more common in cases of drug possession than their white counterparts.  Innocent black individuals also spend longer amounts of time incarcerated while awaiting exoneration, and are far more likely to have police misconduct as a contributing factor in their wrongful convictions than white individuals. Pennsylvania closely follows the national trend of shockingly high rates of exonerations for black individuals as compared with the black population demographic.

             Enacting legislation to provide financial compensation for the wrongly convicted in Pennsylvania will help move toward restoring public faith in the criminal justice system of the commonwealth.  Just last week, Philadelphia’s District Attorney Seth Williams, who has been involved in numerous scandals throughout his tenure in office, was indicted on 23 federal charges of bribery and fraud. There is no more appropriate time than now for Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system to address the public shame that continues to plague our institutions of justice, and begin to provide financial compensation to those it has harmed.  

             By setting a precedent for accountability and meticulous work by all individuals involved in the criminal justice process, we can hope to restore public faith in the legitimacy of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system.  Only 23% of the public currently feels confident in America’s criminal justice system,  an abysmal rating for what should strive be among the most respected institutions in our country.   Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  This profound proclamation is haunting in the face of data on wrongful convictions.  Pennsylvania’s institutions must seek to adhere to the state motto - Virtue, defined as moral excellence; Liberty - free from arbitrary or despotic control”; and Independence - “the quality or state of being independent.”

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