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Opinion/Editorial: Wrongly in prison: Now what?

Opinion/Editorial: Wrongly in prison: Now what?

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Virginia often prides itself on being among the top states in the nation on a number of measurements: business, science and technology, education, financial stability and a host of others.

But on one measurement, the commonwealth lags behind many of its peers — and in a way that impacts some of the most ill-treated of its citizens: those who have been wrongly imprisoned.

A new study by the staff of the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee shows that Virginia trails many other states in the amount of compensation it provides to people who have been imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

Virginia’s compensation averages $46,895 per person per year of wrongful imprisonment, far lower than $70,157 averaged elsewhere.

Seventeen states make certain that their compensation starts at a higher rate than that by setting a minimum award of $50,000 per year. Thirty-four states, the District of Columbia and the federal government award money to innocent prisoners in an attempt to somehow recompense them for a loss of freedom and preventing them from pursuing jobs and careers.

Virginia didn’t even award compensation until 2004, when a new law authorized such payments.

Meanwhile, the commonwealth is unusual in that it leaves decisions in the hands of the General Assembly — although lawmakers do use a formula, rather than subjective criteria, in arriving at the amounts to be granted. Money is disbursed through a combination of a lump-sum award plus yearly payments.

The compensation is based on 90% of the inflation-adjusted per capita personal income for each year of wrongful imprisonment.

On its face, that formula doesn’t seem unreasonable.

And there are additional ways the wrongfully imprisoned can obtain funds: money for community college, a transition grant to help with re-entry into society, and an extra award if it is determined that fabricated or suppressed evidence played a role in the person’s conviction — a particularly egregious finding that indicates not just an honest, though tragic, mistake but rather a deliberate and dishonest miscarriage of justice.

Other parts of the compensation policy also deserve scrutiny, critics say.

Not addressed is a requirement that a wrongfully imprisoned person not be convicted of any other unrelated felony in order to be eligible for compensation. In other words, if someone was wrongly convicted of murder but rightly convicted at some point of, say, burglary, then he or she could not receive compensation for the injury and injustice of the improper imprisonment for murder. In terms of true objectivity, what does the one have to do with the other?

This is one of the issues flagged by the University of Virginia School of Law Innocence Project, which works on behalf of those who are wrongfully imprisoned.

“It is appalling that … the commonwealth wrongfully convicts you; puts you in prison for years; owes you a paltry sum of money for the inconvenience of putting you in a cage; and then gets to decide how and when you get that paltry sum … even if you’re sick or dying,” said Director Dierdre Enright, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The House report was launched by the 2020 General Assembly, and some of these issues might come before the 2021 session — although, because it’s a short session, Del. Richard C. Sullivan Jr., who helped prompt the report, doubts that much can be accomplished.

Whenever it occurs, we will be interested to hear debate on whether the compensation formula is fair and, if not, how it can be improved; and on the question of compensating prisoners for the wrong done to them irrespective of the wrong they might have done to others.

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