The Illinois General Assembly finally passed a budget on July 6, 2017, overriding a veto by Governor Bruce Rauner. After more than two years without a full state budget, this is welcome news to many in Illinois, but none more so than the 22 exonerees who have received court-issued certificates of innocence but not the statutory compensation that normally accompanies them.
In 2008, the Center on Wrongful Convictions supported the creation of a certificate of innocence remedy in Illinois, not only because it would provide a vehicle for exonerees to demonstrate they were actually innocent rather than freed by a technicality, but also because it would expedite the process of determining eligibility for state compensation through the Illinois Court of Claims. A few kinks in the statute remain, but it had worked relatively well in streamlining the receipt of compensation—until Illinois politics created a budget impasse beginning in 2015. No wrongful conviction awards have been paid since then.
Imagine being snatched from your life and sent to prison for many years (or decades) for a crime you did not commit. When you are finally freed, your home and possessions are long gone, your bank account is drained, and you are not immediately suited for a job. You struggle to readjust to a world that is quite different from the one you left so many years earlier. You may or may not have family and friends who can help, but regardless, it is galling to rely on the charity of others when your incarceration was not remotely your fault. Now imagine the government has agreed that you were wrongfully convicted and are entitled to compensation, but no payment is forthcoming because of political wrangling in the state capitol. This has been the plight of no fewer than 22 Illinois exonerees for over two years.
While it is good news that these exonerees will finally receive their statutory compensation (which is sorely inadequate, but that is a topic for another post), this cannot happen again. Legislators should amend the law to guarantee that exonerees will be compensated in a timely manner even if there is a future budget standoff—just as lawmakers and other state employees continued to receive their paychecks during this past budget impasse. The people and the government of Illinois owe at least that much to our wrongfully convicted.