Exonerees and mean friends

One of my favorite radio shows, “This American Life,” re-broadcast an episode called “The Allure of the Mean Friend.” It included the story of a man whose father sent him a bill for $2 million, which purportedly represented the cost of his childhood.

This put me in mind of a singular event that happened many years ago to a Center on Wrongful Convictions client: After he received state compensation for his wrongful incarceration, family members presented him with a bill for expenses they had incurred while he was in prison, such as collect telephone calls and commissary money they had provided to him.

Thankfully, this was an aberration—though of course relatives and friends of the wrongfully convicted do suffer extreme financial and emotional loss. More often, it is the government that is the “mean friend.” For instance, it is not a singular event for a state to demand payment from an exoneree for failing to support his or her children while in prison. Think about it: The government yanks an innocent person away from parental duties and pleasures, then sends a bill for public funds expended on the children while the parent was behind bars. Can you imagine?

Last year, the state of Washington enacted a new compensation law that addresses “mean friends.” Besides offering $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment (generally accepted as the minimum acceptable sum), the statute reimburses for child support debt as well as court costs associated with the wrongful conviction. The new law also prohibits the state from deducting prison costs, such as food and clothing, from the financial award—thereby preventing the ultimate “mean friend” grab.

While the Washington statute is by no means perfect, these provisions should be standard in state compensation laws. Nothing can repay an innocent person for decades wasted in prison, but at least we can refrain from piling on debt that would not exist in the first place except for the wrongful conviction.

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