Wrongly convicted in 1989 for the 1985 rape and murder of 16-year-old Kimberly Simon, 44-year-old Steven Barnes was exonerated in January of 2009 after The Innocence Project worked to clear him through DNA testing. Now, two years later and after filing a civil suit against the State of New York, he has received $3.5 million – about $184,000 for each of the nineteen years he spent behind bars – far more than most exonerees receive.
This case calls attention to the need to change policy to compensate individuals who have been incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit. Even after a conviction is overturned, exonerees still have to readjust to life outside of prison – to find employment and housing, deal with a criminal record that often doesn’t go away even after being declared innocent, and try to get their lives back on track after so many years – not an easy task for those who in many cases have spent decades locked up. They’ve missed out on so much and suffered unduly, and we believe that states have a moral and legal duty to provide support to the falsely convicted.
Still, many states, Pennsylvania included, do not have policies in place that compensate those who have been falsely convicted. In some of the states where compensation laws exist, former inmates must file civil suits against the state in order to receive compensation, as was the case with Mr. Barnes. This means that once exonerees are finished with one difficult legal battle, they must undergo a new one in order to try to get their lives back to normal. In other states, the maximum level of compensation is set as low as $25,000, an amount that pales in comparison to undeservedly enduring years of prison and the deprivation of freedom that comes with it.
State authorities need to create an automatic compensation policy that is based on a set minimum monetary award for each year served in prison, provide immediate services such as affordable housing, education and job skills training, and officially acknowledge wrongful conviction in order to clear an individual’s criminal record and establish to the public that the government is willing to admit to and rectify its faults.
Along with this issue, we must also call attention to victims’ rights in the case of an exoneration – the victims of a crime where an exoneration has taken place, as well as their families, should be able to receive support through what is undeniably a difficult time for them. We need policies that make counseling and support services automatically available to those who wish to make use of them.
More information on the compensation laws in various states can be found on this interactive map.
The Innocence Project – Compensating the Wrongfully Convicted
The Innocence Project – Steven Barnes is Fully Exonerated with DNA Testing in Utica, NY, Nearly 20 Years After Wrongful Conviction for Rape and Murder
“King Steve” $3.5M Richer After Settlement – Utica, NY – The Observer-Dispatch