March 14, 2013

Time Is Money (and So Much More)

One of the crueler ironies of the current criminal justice system is the disparate way it treats people being released from prison.

If you’re guilty and coming to the end of a full sentence, the system is designed to help ease your transition back into the real world. There’s counseling, an emphasis on making plans for life outside of prison, and a (overburdened and underfunded) support system waiting upon release to make sure a person doesn’t fall back into bad habits. At least it’s supposed to work that way.

Not so if you’re actually innocent of whatever sent you to prison in the first place. The wrongfully convicted, who can lose years of their lives in a cage waiting for the justice system to get things right, aren’t necessarily given much help at all.

Consider what happened to Robert Dewey, who was locked up by the state of Colorado for a murder he didn’t commit. Nearly 18 years later, DNA not only cleared Dewey but linked the murder to someone else:
After years of work by his court-appointed lawyer, Danyel Joffe, the Innocence Project came on board in 2007 and paid for tests that showed no DNA links between Mr. Dewey and the crime scene. His conviction was reversed, and he was released last April. He left with an apology and a handshake from prosecutors in Mesa County, he said, but little else.
Colorado, like nearly half the states, doesn’t have any scheme for compensating people who have been wrongly imprisoned, although legislation providing for $70,000 per year in prison is working its way through the state legislature.

Dewey’s case is a particularly good example of this problem because DNA exonerations tend to take place in cases, like murders and rapes, where defendants are sentenced to lengthy terms, including life, which makes any attempt at rehabilitation unlikely:
Because Mr. Dewey had been sentenced to life, he said, he never touched a computer or took any vocational classes while he was in prison. He came out awe-struck by a world that had gone online and turned digital. The first time he walked into a Walmart, he said, he was so overwhelmed by its colors and scale that he had to run outside to smoke a cigarette.
I have to admit, I’m regularly overwhelmed at Walmart, but not because of the colors.

Dewey’s case is also a good example of the poor medical care that inmates sometimes receive while in prison. He’s currently unable to work because of a back injury that was aggravated while in prison. All in all, this seems like a correct assessment:
’God bless him, but the system has created him the way he is,’ said Stephen Laiche, one of Mr. Dewey’s lawyers in his 1996 trial. Mr. Laiche is now working to seal Mr. Dewey’s records from the murder case. ‘Are we surprised that he can’t get a job? Because we wrongfully convicted him, he couldn’t work for 20 years.’
Society owes a duty to anyone it locks in a cage to try and help them move back into the outside world. Not out of any kind of bleeding heart charity, but just because it’s better for them and us if they become productive, law-abiding citizens. That duty is doubly critical to those whom we had no reason to lock away in the first place. Seventy grand, or an even larger amount, isn’t much for a years of a man’s life disappeared, but it’s the least we can do.

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