Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Where Do We Get the Money to Help Exonerees?

Martin Luther King, Jr. critics and detractors increased as he spoke less of desegregation and integration and more about economic justice. "It didn't cost one dime for America to desegregate lunch counters and transportation", he said. He was absolutely right. In fact, not only did it not cost, it paid. Desegregation and integration greatly expanded America's consumer base. Most of this country will gladly support strides toward justice which don't cost anything. It's much easier to gain public support for resolutions than it is for costly legislation to correct injustices.

It the same with case of exonerees. Timothy Cole's posthumous exoneration cost the state a court hearing. But were he alive, we would be talking about tens of thousands of dollars. That's what the Innocence Project of Texas is looking for in its work in the Texas Legislature.

More specifically, among the things they are asking for:

  • An increase in compensation from $50,000 to $80,000 per year of incarceration
  • They are asking that this money be placed in an annuity to ensure continued income
  • They are asking legislators to support Senate Bill 115/House Bill 498, 788 which is the creation of an Innocence Commission to identify additional practices that need to be changed and a process by which the state can find and free the other innocent people, especially those for whom there is no DNA evidence still available to test.
Obviously, the sticking point for some legislators is the idea of increased compensation for exonerees. The question that almost any politician would ask and which I was asked on at least two occasions was, "Where will the money come from?"

I nearly always bristle at the question, because my gut reaction is, "I'm not the one who asked to run for office, that was you! Isn't it your job to find the money?" And that's true, unless the issue is not of interest to a politician.

To be sure, $80,000 per year of incarceration, is a lot of money. Especially when you realize that there are 20 exonerees in Dallas alone.

Yet according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, there are approximately 156,000 inmates in the Texas penal system. Tax payers pay a little over $18,000 per year, per inmate (the national average is over $24,000 a year). In 2008, 1200 prison beds were added at a cost of $60,000 per bed.

Repeatedly jailed, or hospitalized prisoners, or those who are repeatedly admitted to detoxification centers cost the state about $55,000 a year. In a report published in January 1999, the Criminal Justice Policy Council projected that by 2008 the state would spend between $53-56 million in health care costs on more than 10,000 inmates 55 years or older.

Had these men not been exonerated these dollars (or some parts of them, because most of these men are in there early to mid 50's), would have been spent on them as prisoners.

How would the state pay increased compensation for these men? Why not let the aforementioned dollars follow these men after their exoneration? That way this is not a new pot of money and had they stayed in prison it wouldn't necessarily represent an increase because we don't close prisons because they are overcrowded.

Where would the money come from?

It's strange that no one asked where the money came from to inadequately investigate the crimes;

  • no one asked where the money came from for the trials which wrongly convicted them;
  • no one asked where the money came from to house and feed them, or provide health care (of whatever quality) during their incarceration, many for two or nearly three decades;
  • no one asks where the money comes from to arrest, try and convict the actual perpetrators of the crimes for which these men are wrongly convicted and incarcerated;
  • no one asks where the money comes from as we pay the cost for the crimes committed when these perpetrators are not caught;
When society makes a mistake of such consequence as convicting the wrong man or woman, we all pay a great price, monetarily and in ways that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

The money is there. Just like its always there to do the things that politicians consider to be important. Its a question of whether or not we consider the lives of these men worth what it will cost.

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