Former inmates abruptly freed after spending up to six years in federal prison even though they were "legally innocent" are coming home with less help than the government typically provides the guilty after they are released.
|Kim Harris was declared legally innocent and |
released from prison with little more than a
bus ticket and the clothes she was wearing.
Most of them have received little more than a bus ticket. Federal law does not require the government to help them search for jobs or find basic necessities such as clothing and a place to live, assistance the guilty routinely receive during their post-prison supervision, partly to keep them from returning to crime.
Judges in North Carolina have so far ordered the government to release at least 17 inmates in one of the largest episodes in recent memory of federal prisoners having their convictions overturned. It follows a USA TODAY investigation this year that identified 60 people incarcerated for gun possession even though a court later determined that they had not committed a federal crime. The U.S. Justice Department had originally argued that they should remain in prison anyway, but reversed its position last month "in the interests of justice," according to court records.
Neither the courts nor the Justice Department could estimate how many more prisoners might ultimately be released. Dozens of other inmates from North Carolina still are waiting for judges to decide whether their convictions should be thrown out, too.
"A lot of people would say they need help finding a job, but it's really they need help finding underwear," said Theresa Newman, who runs a wrongful convictions program at Duke University's law school. "At a minimum, the state and the federal government should help innocent people make the transition out."
The Justice Department would not comment on the record about help for the freed prisoners, saying instead that it is trying to make sure innocent prisoners are freed. Spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said prosecutors "are working with the court, the probation office and the federal public defenders to ensure that these matters are addressed as effectively and quickly as possible."
At least 10 states provide services such as job training, health care and housing assistance to wrongfully convicted prisoners, according to an Innocence Project study. Most states and the federal government also provide some help in finding social services once someone serves his full prison sentence and is released on parole or supervision, though that help is not available to people whose convictions are overturned.
Compensation for the time they were locked up is even less likely. Federal law permits the government to pay people up to $50,000 for every year they were wrongly imprisoned, but the ex-prisoners -- almost all of whom could have been convicted of state crimes with lesser penalties -- are unlikely to meet its strict eligibility requirements.
"Exonarees fall into this hole where there really isn't a re-entry program for them. Their path to re-entry is often more difficult than someone who has legitimately served time," said Michele Berry, an Ohio lawyer who has handled wrongful conviction cases there. She said that means prisoners freed because they are innocent could have a harder time after they are released than guilty inmates who finish their sentences.
Brookston Cooke, freed in August from a federal prison in Pennsylvania, said he is struggling to find a job and get his license renewed. So far, he's had little success and no real help. "Right now that's my biggest challenge," he said. "Getting back to a normal life."
USA TODAY's investigation found that the Justice Department had done almost nothing to identify prisoners such as Cooke — many of whom did not know they were innocent — and had argued in court that they should remain imprisoned even though its lawyers agreed they had not committed a federal crime.
Federal law bans people from having a gun if they have previously been convicted of a crime that could have put them in prison for more than a year. In North Carolina, however, state law set the maximum punishment for a crime based on the prior record of whoever committed it, meaning two people who committed the same crime could face vastly different maximum sentences.
For years, federal courts there said that didn't matter. If someone with a long record could have gone to prison for more than a year, then all who had committed that crime are felons and cannot legally have a gun, the courts maintained. But last year, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said judges had been getting the law wrong: Only people who could have faced more than a year in prison for their crimes qualify as felons. Its decision meant thousands of low-level offenders are not committing a federal crime by having a gun.
In addition to the 17 people who have been freed from prison so far, federal courts in North Carolina have overturned 12 more convictions. Most of those people had already served their prison sentences and were on supervised release by the time their convictions were thrown out.