LANSING, Mich. — Identification, housing, and employment are basic needs for most adults. For newly exonerated people, they can be insurmountable hurdles.
Now, some Michigan government agencies and non-profits are coordinating their efforts to help exonerees reintegrate into society.
Chris Gautz with the Michigan Department of Corrections says the state will help exonerees with things like housing for a year and job training.
“If they were looking to get a job and needed assistance paying for clothing or tools, things like that for a job they were looking to get, we could help with that cost," Gautz said.
Valerie Newman is a former defense attorney who now heads up the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit.
Newman says she learned very early on about the gaps in support for exonerees and started working closely with the Department of Corrections and nonprofits to coordinate services.
“We flag the cases early on so when I know someone is getting out I contact Miriam and she will contact her network within Offenders Success. So they have documents they give to the person that lists all the things they can help with housing, clothing and jobs," Newman said.
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Gregory Berry was exonerated in December after serving more than 17 years for murder.
Right now, he’s living in a motel but can’t afford to stay there indefinitely. Berry says he found a job but is waiting for Section 8 housing and reliable transportation.
But he’s thankful for help from the Department of Corrections and an out-of-state nonprofit that has paired him up with a social worker.
“She’s been helping me tremendously. She helped me get my state I.D. She helped me get my Michigan temporary driver’s license and my Social Security card," Berry said
Getting identification can be a complicated process for a person who never served time but it's more pronounced for exonerees.
A nonprofit in California called After Innocence is helping people like Berry get the documents they need to navigate the world outside of prison.
“The most important time that a state should know who a person is is when it's incarcerating them. And why we haven’t been able to consistently make the connection to say that the same person should get an easy path to a photo I.D. is a mystery to me," said Jon Eldan, the organization's founder and director.
After Innocence is helping 47 exonerees here in Michigan, and Eldan says state programming here is head and shoulders above other states.
“The Michigan DOC tries to get in touch with all these people, tries to do what they can do and that’s better than just about all the other states that I’ve seen," he said.
Some of the people we talked to in the innocence community say the state hasn’t done a good job of communicating what it can do to help the wrongfully convicted transition back into society. Others say they aren’t comfortable dealing with a system that locked them up
Many turn to nonprofits like the National Organization of Exonerees headed up by Marvin Cotton Jr. for help.
Cotton was exonerated in 2020 after serving about 19 years in prison. He says he’s on a mission to help.
“I help find resources for a lot of exonerees once they are released. Whether it's housing, healthcare, to help put money in they pocket as soon as they get out. The resources standing in the gap that the state is failing to fill," Cotton said.
Resources for exonerees:
Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit:
Michigan Department of Corrections: (Exonerees within two years of release from MDOC)
517-582-4311 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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