LANSING, Mich. — They spent years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit, now some of Michigan's exonerees say they aren’t being paid for the years they lost.
State officials say that’s because the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation fund doesn’t have enough money.
The Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation fund was created as part of a legislative effort to make sure people who’ve been wrongly incarcerated have the chance to get back some of the money they would have earned if they’d never been convicted.
Under the WICA Act, these men and women are entitled to get tens of thousands of dollars for each year spent behind bars.
What you may not know is that the path to getting this money isn't easy or fast.
“Some of the egregious problems in the statute are if you are wrongfully convicted and your case was overturned for what’s called insufficient evidence, you never should have really been charged you’re out of luck on the statute because you weren’t lucky enough to find what’s called new evidence that caused your conviction to be overturned,” said attorney Wolf Mueller.
Mueller says these cases can take anywhere from a year to six months to resolve and he's finding even after his clients have won, they are still in limbo.
“I have six clients who are in total owed about $5.5 million dollars. There’s probably about under $1 million in the account. And they are not just my guys, there’s other people out there,” said Mueller.
Mueller’s estimates are close to what state officials are telling Fox 47 News.
In an email from Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office, we learned that the WICA fund has about $1.2 million. The state owes exonerees about $9 million.
Larry Smith Junior was exonerated in February.
Smith spent almost 30 years of his life locked up for murder.
He says he has filed a lawsuit against the state hoping to get compensated for the miscarriage of justice.
“They say I had to file a lawsuit to get the resources available to me, the $50,000 dollars a year for the wrongfully convicted but they don’t have money in the fund. So where I’m at? I’m waiting,” said Smith.
That’s the thing.
Many people might assume if you’re exonerated you are released and get a big fat check for all your trouble.
But that is not the case for the wrongly accused.
- Rally to stop wrongful convictions held in Lansing
- State agencies, nonprofits help the wrongfully convicted adjust to life after release
- After serving time for crimes they didn't commit, many exonerees find little help on the outside
In order to access the WICA fund, a lawsuit has to be filed against the state which is a major barrier according to some in the innocence community because this group of people may not have the means to retain a lawyer.
Many question how long exonerees will have to wait for WICA money while others question if lawmakers will earmark enough money to meet the growing number of people who are eligible.
“It is funded but there’s a very good likelihood given the high amount of exonerations that we’re seeing that we’re seeing the state of Michigan which is a very positive thing we may very well see that what has been budgeted for 2021 is insufficient,” said Marla Mitchell-Cichon, Professor at WMU Cooley Law School.
Fox 47 News did reach out to lawmakers to ask about the shortfall, when it will be funded, and where that money would come from.
In an email from the office of House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert.
Albert says, “This is an issue we are aware of and already working to address. On May 13, the Michigan House approved a supplemental budget bill that includes $7 million for the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act fund. That is the amount the State Budget Office said was needed at this time. The money would be appropriated from the state’s general fund.”
The bill allocating $7 million toward the WICA fund is now in the Senate awaiting approval.
But even if that amount is added, it will still not be enough to cover the outstanding claims or any new ones that are approved moving forward.
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