Kim Harris was declared legally innocent and released from prison with little more than a bus ticket and the clothes she was wearing.USA TODAY
By Brad Heath, USA TODAY
Former inmates abruptly freed after spending up to six years in
federal prison even though they were "legally innocent" are coming home
with less help than the government typically provides the guilty after
they are released.
Most of them have received little more than a
bus ticket. Federal law does not require the government to help them
search for jobs or find basic necessities such as clothing and a place
to live, assistance the guilty routinely receive during their
post-prison supervision, partly to keep them from returning to crime.
in North Carolina have so far ordered the government to release at
least 17 inmates in one of the largest episodes in recent memory of
federal prisoners having their convictions overturned. It follows a USA TODAY investigation
this year that identified 60 people incarcerated for gun possession
even though a court later determined that they had not committed a
federal crime. The U.S. Justice Department had originally argued that
they should remain in prison anyway, but reversed its position last
month "in the interests of justice," according to court records.
the courts nor the Justice Department could estimate how many more
prisoners might ultimately be released. Dozens of other inmates from
North Carolina still are waiting for judges to decide whether their
convictions should be thrown out, too.
"A lot of people would say
they need help finding a job, but it's really they need help finding
underwear," said Theresa Newman, who runs a wrongful convictions program
at Duke University's law school. "At a minimum, the state and the
federal government should help innocent people make the transition out."
Justice Department would not comment on the record about help for the
freed prisoners, saying instead that it is trying to make sure innocent
prisoners are freed. Spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said prosecutors "are
working with the court, the probation office and the federal public
defenders to ensure that these matters are addressed as effectively and
quickly as possible."
At least 10 states provide services such as
job training, health care and housing assistance to wrongfully convicted
prisoners, according to an Innocence Project study.
Most states and the federal government also provide some help in
finding social services once someone serves his full prison sentence and
is released on parole or supervision, though that help is not available
to people whose convictions are overturned.
Compensation for the
time they were locked up is even less likely. Federal law permits the
government to pay people up to $50,000 for every year they were wrongly
imprisoned, but the ex-prisoners -- almost all of whom could have been
convicted of state crimes with lesser penalties -- are unlikely to meet
its strict eligibility requirements.
"Exonarees fall into this
hole where there really isn't a re-entry program for them. Their path to
re-entry is often more difficult than someone who has legitimately
served time," said Michele Berry, an Ohio lawyer who has handled
wrongful conviction cases there. She said that means prisoners freed
because they are innocent could have a harder time after they are
released than guilty inmates who finish their sentences.
Brookston Cooke, freed in August from a federal prison
in Pennsylvania, said he is struggling to find a job and get his
license renewed. So far, he's had little success and no real help.
"Right now that's my biggest challenge," he said. "Getting back to a
USA TODAY's investigation found that the Justice
Department had done almost nothing to identify prisoners such as Cooke -
many of whom did not know they were innocent - and had argued in court
that they should remain imprisoned even though its lawyers agreed they
had not committed a federal crime.
Federal law bans people from
having a gun if they have previously been convicted of a crime that
could have put them in prison for more than a year. In North Carolina,
however, state law set the maximum punishment for a crime based on the
prior record of whoever committed it, meaning two people who committed
the same crime could face vastly different maximum sentences.
years, federal courts there said that didn't matter. If someone with a
long record could have gone to prison for more than a year, then all who
had committed that crime are felons and cannot legally have a gun, the
courts maintained. But last year, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said judges had been getting the law wrong:
Only people who could have faced more than a year in prison for their
crimes qualify as felons. Its decision meant thousands of low-level
offenders are not committing a federal crime by having a gun.
addition to the 17 people who have been freed from prison so far,
federal courts in North Carolina have overturned 12 more convictions.
Most of those people had already served their prison sentences and were
on supervised release by the time their convictions were thrown out.