In an effort to overhaul Massachusetts’ compensation system for people who have been wrongfully convicted, state lawmakers have proposed a bill that would not only expedite access to the money owed to the wrongly incarcerated, but also connect them with social services already available to returning citizens, but that continue to be withheld from those who are innocent.
The proposal would revamp the current compensation system, which has long been criticized by justice reform advocates for its inability to provide immediate relief to people who have been wrongfully imprisoned.
“I came home to nothing except the clothes on my back and my family and friends,” said Sean Ellis, whose battle to overturn his wrongful conviction was the subject of the Netflix docuseries Trial 4. Released from prison in 2015, Ellis testified Tuesday at a State House hearing on the proposal that he waited another six years before receiving any compensation or support from the government in 2021.
“I didn’t know how to work a cell phone, I didn’t know how to manage my bank account, I didn’t know how to sign up for health care,” he said. “When you first come home, it’s like a big celebration. But then life happens and you become somewhat of a burden to those that love you and care about you.”
The proposal, spearheaded by state Senator Patricia Jehlen of Somerville and Representatives Christopher Worrell of Boston and Jeffrey Roy of Franklin, would provide those wrongly convicted with $5,000 immediately upon release, and another $15,000 once legal proceedings begin.
Additionally, Jehlen, a Democrat, said it would remove the cap on the maximum amount a person is allowed to be compensated, and lower the burden of proof to be the same as other civil cases, while also mandating that these cases be given priority in the justice system. Every wrongfully convicted person would also be entitled to a social service advocate to help set them up with basic services, such as an ID, health care, job training, and housing.
The Department of Correction “takes care of every need you have when you’re in there,” said Robert Foxworth, another exoneree who testified Tuesday. “They feed you, they clothe you, your medical ... but when they let you out, they just turn the key and set you free.”
He added, “when we come out, we’re newborn again, we’re like babies. We’re lost, and we need help.”
Under the current compensation system, it can years before wrongfully convicted people receive the money they are owed, forcing them to rely on the charity of friends and family, or search for a bed among already overcrowded emergency shelters.
Foxworth voiced his frustration that, as an innocent man, he returned home with fewer available resources than people who were guilty. He told legislators that, after being released, he waited 18 months before receiving his first payment from the state. While he applauded the progress state officials have made in transitional services available to parolees, he questioned why those same services weren’t available to those wrongly convicted.
“I shouldn’t have to live at the Pine Street Inn for years, I shouldn’t have to steal something to eat,” he said. “You wish you could just go back to your life before, but you can’t. It’s gone, everything’s gone.”
Shar’Day Taylor, a social services advocate with the New England Innocence Project, highlighted housing as a particular concern for people wrongfully convicted, who aren’t eligible for other transitional housing programs typically offered to returning citizens. Those lucky enough to secure a spot often find themselves in housing limbo, unable to apply for affordable housing without proper identification.
“They’re put on waiting lists that are backed up for decades,” Taylor said. “Exonerees are in competition with that population, and access to vouchers is nonexistent because we are not on the record as being present” in society.
The burden of proof to win compensation after a wrongful conviction is also higher than other civil suits in Massachusetts, and many people seeking relief settle for much less than what a jury would award them. Those who do hold out for a jury trial can only receive a maximum of $1 million, regardless of how many years they spent in prison, even if jurors determine the person is entitled to more.
Boston College Law Professor Sharon Beckman called the cap “regressive,” because “the more time an innocent person spends in prison, the less compensation per year they receive.”
Senator Jehlen stressed that exonerees deserve to be paid the full amount for the time they never should have spent in prison, and that it is the state’s obligation to lift all barriers to those resources.
“When a person is sentenced to prison, we say they’re paying a debt to society,” Jehlen said. “But what does society owe an innocent person after taking decades of their life unjustly?”