PA Needs to Do More to Help Those Imprisoned for Crimes They Didn’t Commit

Guilty ex-cons get more assistance from the state than exonerated ones.

Last weekend’s 60 Minutes featured the story of Brian Banks, a former high-school football star who was on his way to almost certain glory in the NFL when his career was cut short in 2002 by a false rape accusation. Banks spent more than five years in jail before an enterprising private investigator managed to capture his accuser—Wanetta Gibson—on video recanting her story. Banks never raped her, she said. She had made it all up.

Last year,  a decade after his ordeal began, Banks, who is now 27, was officially exonerated during a hearing in California Superior Court. Thanks to California’s wrongful conviction compensation statute, Banks may not have to start his new life entirely from scratch. Under the law, he’s entitled to file a claim with the state to collect $100 a day for every day he was incarcerated. In total, the restitution will amount to a little over $200,000, which is not much when you consider what he lost (and not even close to the $1.5 million his accuser pocketed from her lawsuit against the school district where she and Banks were students).

But Banks should thank his lucky stars he doesn’t live in Pennsylvania.

That’s because Pennsylvania is one of 23 states nationwide that doesn’t have a law on the books governing compensation for people who have been sent to jail for a crime they didn’t commit. While victims of crimes in the Keystone State can apply for public funds to pay for their medical bills, reimburse them for lost wages, and pay for counseling to get them back on track, if you’re a victim of a false accusation, a rogue prosecutor or poor policing, you’re let out of jail with little more than a pat on the back, a half-hearted apology, and—if you’re lucky—cab fare.

According to the Innocence Institute at Point Park University, exonerated prisoners in Pennsylvania receive less assistance with re-entry to society than prisoners who actually commit crimes and are paroled. If this seems patently unfair, that’s probably because it is.  And according to a tally by the Innocence Project, Pennsylvania is one of only three states in the Northeast that doesn’t have a system in place for compensating the wrongfully convicted. (Delaware and Rhode Island are the other two.)

In New Jersey, exonerated prisoners are entitled to twice the amount of their income in the year prior to incarceration, or $20,000 per year of incarceration, whichever is greater. Lawmakers are currently considering a bill there that could greatly raise that amount and provide for periodic increases to make sure it stays on par with inflation. In Ohio, a wrongfully convicted person is eligible to receive $40,330 per year in addition to lost wages, costs, and attorney’s fees as long as the accused didn’t plead guilty. Even Texas, which leads the nation in exonerated prisoners and is hardly a poster child for equitable criminal justice, has a scheme in place for reimbursing innocent convicts for their lost time.

Here in Pennsylvania, exonerated prisoners can sue the state in federal court at their own expense, but they face an uphill battle, and to collect they have to show that their rights were violated by investigators or prosecutors. Or, if there was a false accusation involved, they can sue their accuser; but unless that person happens to be a millionaire, the payoff isn’t likely to be much, if it can be collected at all.

Advances in DNA technology have led to a spike in prisoner exonerations in recent years. We’re not talking about a few months or a year or two in the slammer, either. Wrongfully convicted people spend, on average, 13.5 years behind bars, according to the Innocence Project, and 40 percent of them don’t receive a dime from the state that put them there.

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the case of Drew Whitely, who was cleared with DNA evidence in 2006 of a murder, after serving 18 years in prison. Whitely couldn’t be tracked down for the article, but a representative of the Innocence Institute, which worked on his case, told a reporter: “He is basically destitute.”

Efforts to change Pennsylvania state law to include a fund for compensating the wrongfully convicted have been championed since the 1990s by Republican State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, but they have had little success in Harrisburg, largely due to resistance from his own party. In January, Greenleaf’s colleague Sen. Jim Ferlo, an Allegheny County Democrat, introduced Senate Bill 38, which would provide for compensation of no less than $50,000 a year for each year of incarceration, adjusted for inflation.

On any given day, any one of us could become the next Brian Banks. Pennsylvania needs to stop swimming against the current and pass this bill.