LANSING, Mich. (AP) - One newly exonerated inmate walks free every couple of months in Michigan, which has released more innocent prisoners than all but four states. Julie Baumer was one of them, missing four years of family life and career advancement due to a child abuse conviction after her nephew’s head injuries were mistakenly blamed on shaken-baby trauma.
Yet Michigan, unlike 30 other states that have provided the wrongfully convicted with financial support, is just beginning to seriously confront the issue after years of stalled efforts and a prolonged economic downturn.
“There’s no closure,” said Baumer, a 39-year-old former mortgage loan officer who now works an entry-level administrative assistant job for a parish near Detroit. She first stayed in a homeless shelter and has struggled to mend relationships with family members who’d lost hope of her 10- to 15-year sentence ending early.
“It’s just an open wound that continually oozes emotional pain,” she said.
The first steps to remedy the plight of Baumer and others came in June, when a legislative committee approved a bill that would provide $60,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration plus lost wages, medical expenses and attorney fees.
The measure’s supporters say it would be irresponsible to wait any longer, given that a bill first surfaced in Michigan a decade ago. Even Gov. Rick Snyder has brought attention to the issue, calling on lawmakers to help innocent inmates “back on their feet,” though the Republican has stopped short of backing the current legislation.
“This is really just designed … to recognize the fact that this person lost their freedom,” said Democratic Sen. Steve Bieda, a bill sponsor. “We’re trying to get them reintegrated into society and to put them at a level of comfort without necessarily being a billionaire walking out of the system.”
But potential roadblocks may stand in the way. Term-limited legislators have priorities other than an issue affecting few of Michigan’s 9.9 million residents. And the state isn’t entirely settled financially - the general fund is roughly the same size as it was 15 years ago, and the upfront cost of compensation would be nearly $16 million.
Half of the 56 people who have been freed in Michigan since 1989 would qualify for between $30,000 and $2.1 million, nearly $592,000 on average, putting the state above the nationwide median payout of $240,000, or $24,000 for each year of time served, according to the Innocence Project. Texas pays the most - $80,000 per year in prison plus a monthly annuity, college tuition and job training. Other states have caps, while some provide pennies in comparison: a maximum of $20,000 in New Hampshire, only educational expenses in Montana.
The cost would be minimal for Michigan, said Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, a Republican who heads the chamber’s spending panel. The state has an obligation to “make it right,” he said.
Advocates call it a moral responsibility, since the problems don’t end once inmates leave prison. People need money and immediate help with housing, transportation and health care. Unlike parolees, the exonerated don’t qualify for employment assistance and other re-entry services. Family members may be there to lend an initial hand, but not always.
Jaime Peterson, a mentally disabled man, spent 17 years behind bars for a rape and murder before being cleared by DNA evidence last year. He “would have been living behind a dumpster” if University of Michigan law school students hadn’t found him a spot at a group home and provided food, clothing and a legal guardian, according to David Moran, director of the school’s Michigan Innocence Clinic.
“We have people trying to hold things together hoping the compensation comes,” Moran said. “But as we get more people out, it just becomes harder and harder for people to volunteer help.
“Volunteer help is not compensation.”
In past debates, some Michigan lawmakers thought it wrong to pay for missteps or wrongdoing by local police. And while prosecutors like the bill’s concept, they want to make certain only the truly innocent, absolved by new evidence, are compensated - not those who win on appeal for other reasons.
“That’s a hard concept to define, but I think that we’ll be able to do that,” said Mike Wendling, a county prosecutor and president-elect of a statewide prosecutors’ group.
A quarter of Michigan’s exonerated wouldn’t qualify for money because they were in jail, served simultaneous sentences for other crimes or died.
Another quarter would be ineligible because they successfully sued for civil rights damages, which can be a difficult slog since police and prosecutors often have immunity.
One of 14 people who did just that, 64-year-old Ken Wyniemko, spent more than eight years in prison for rape until a DNA test cleared him. He received a $3.7 million settlement and now is urging legislators to compensate those unable to win in court.
“Please do the right thing,” Wyniemko said. “Please help.”
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