Thursday, August 21, 2008

How We're Contributing to a Growing Underclass Part 1

We may be able to do something about the underclass that we are creating in this country if we didn't keep adding to it.

We add to it in a number of ways. One way is the way in which the formerly incarcerated are dealt with. Let out of prison with employers loathe to hire them, restricted leasing policies in apartment complexes, we have pretty much cut them loose to return to their neighborhoods of origin where the social pathologies tend to be worse than when they went into prison.

But adjunct to that re-entry population is another class of formerly incarcerated known as 'exonerees': a demographic of the prison population released because of eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, government misconduct and most dramatically, advances in genetic science - known as DNA evidence - which has proven them to be innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted.

I recently met two of these men through the Innocence Project of Texas. Charles Chatman and James Woodard, both of whom have served 27 years in prison for crimes for which they have been convicted and released from prison through DNA evidence. Chatman and Woodard are two of nineteen men who Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watson has found to be wrongly convicted and incarcerated, during the era in which Henry Wade, a former Dallas County DA who served for 30 years had prosecuted.

These men have had the same problems as those who have been guilty and released and are now on probation. Not only that, but they still have a criminal conviction on their record, one which can only erased by a pardon by the governor, a process that can cost money and take years.

Even the process of having their conviction expunged, is no guarantee that they can resume their lives as innocent men.

They have difficulty finding work because employers don't make a clear distinction between exoneration and probation. And accessing compensation for the time they spent in prison, unfairly and wrongly convicted ($50,000, for each year of their incarceration), is not only time consuming, but expensive - they have to hire a lawyer, which could cost up to a third of their compensation, and upon which they have to pay taxes, as if they haven't already paid society enough!

These are men whom we have placed in a virtual no man's land: they are out of touch with a society that has passed them by (Chatman didn't know how to use a cell phone when he was released). But neither do they fit in with the rest of the prison re-entry population because they were not guilty of the crime for which they were imprisoned.

Currently Watkins is having more than 200 such cases researched, the more he finds, the larger the underclass grows. Ironic, isn't it? The search for justice, contributes to the greater injustice of making the innocent indistinguishable from the rest of an already growing underclass.

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