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Editorial: Quit kicking innocent people, once freed, to the curb

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

It is an embarrassment that our criminal justice system sometimes sends an innocent person to prison, often for decades.

Compounding the shame, society often fails to do right by these wrongfully convicted people in the most basic ways once they are freed. Illinois does not always provide them with even modest financial compensation, though by law it is obligated to do so. Even at a time when Illinois has big unpaid bills and no budget, this is indefensible.

Under Illinois law, people who have been locked away for crimes they did not commit are supposed to get compensation from the Illinois Court of Claims, but it doesn’t always work out that way. When Rod Blagojevich was governor, for example, he stonewalled the process by letting requests for clemency and pardons pile up on his desk. At that time, the governor had to grant clemency or a pardon before the Court of Claims could release the money.

EDITORIAL

To get around the Blagojevich roadblock, the Illinois Legislature in 2008 created a “certificate of innocence” that could be granted directly by judges, who are in a position to determine who is innocent without having to conduct a separate inquiry. The idea was that truly innocent people — as opposed to those whose innocence might be less certain — would be compensated for their time behind bars without having to wait for the governor to act.

People who have been wrongfully imprisoned, sometimes for many years, need support immediately upon being freed to restart their lives. The Court of Claims would give them a maximum of about $220,000, depending how many years they spent behind bars.

Blagojevich tried to stop that reform by vetoing it. The Legislature overrode the veto. And that, for awhile, solved the problem.

But now there’s another roadblock.

This time, the problem is the budget impasse in Springfield. As long as there is no budget, people who have been exonerated can’t get their money. There hasn’t been a budget for nearly 18 months. Lawyers say about 14 people have been exonerated during that time. Some are scraping by near the poverty line and could really use the money. Some have filed civil lawsuits, but it could take years to adjudicate those, and the results are uncertain.

In the last session, the Legislature approved a special appropriation so that wrongfully convicted people could get their money, or at least get in line as the state comptroller juggles bills trying to figure out which ones to pay first. But Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the idea, and there were not enough votes in the Legislature for an override.

The best way out of this unconscionable state of affairs would be for Rauner and the Legislature to sign off on a budget. But if that is not about to happen — and it is not — it remains unacceptable to keep innocent people, finally freed, waiting for their just and legal compensation.

Typical of these exonerated inmates, reports the Associated Press, is Angel Gonzalez, who served 20 years for a 1994 rape conviction. DNA tests on forensic evidence collected from the victim and the crime scene later was found to match two other men — neither of them Gonzalez.

Nobody was reluctant to pack these people off to prison in the first place, though prisons are expensive. Nobody fretted about state finances when perceived public safety was on the line. And we can’t see how the budget dispute now should delay delivering basic fairness to the wrongfully convicted. They deserve to get their compensation now, without any more runarounds.

This is a problem that could be fixed for about $2.5 million, a relatively small amount of money. The governor and Legislature should get on it.