Can you imagine going to prison for a crime you did not commit? The frightening reality is there are tens of thousands of innocent people in prison right now. According to one study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, an estimated 6% of the nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. were wrongfully convicted and are currently serving time behind bars. Rhode Island has a handful of cases (that we know of) and now joins dozens of other states that allow wrongfully convicted people to be compensated for the years they spent in prison – and can never get back.
In this blog, Rhode Island Criminal Defense Attorney Ann Sheeley discusses the new law, the most common causes of wrongful convictions and emphasizes why it is absolutely critical to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer if you've been arrested or are under investigation in order to protect your rights.
What is Rhode Island’s new “Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment” Law?
Rhode Island recently passed legislation (2021-H 5470B, 2021-S 0672aa) that allows anyone who was wrongfully imprisoned to petition the Rhode Island Superior Court for compensation and damages. The bill signed by Governor McKee finds that “innocent persons who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes through no fault of their own have been uniquely victimized, and are deserving of consideration and remuneration for this miscarriage of justice.”
If the Court exonerates the individual convicted of a crime based on new evidence of innocence, then the individual can petition the Court for a $50,000 payment for each year wrongly served behind bars. If he/she was imprisoned for less than one year, they’d receive $137 per day of incarceration.
In addition, the law allows claimants to seek compensation for damages, including attorney fees, housing, transportation, reintegrative services and mental and physical health care costs. While exonerees are often left with criminal records that are rarely cleared despite their innocence, the new legislation seeks to help them re-enter society and provide compensation to help rebuild their lives.
As Governor McKee stated in a press release announcing the signed legislation, “Wrongful imprisonment is an injustice, and as a state, we owe these individuals the compensation that they deserve. Although it can never give them back the time that they lost, we hope that it can help them to get back on the track to a successful life.”
Prior to this new legislation, Rhode Island was one of only 14 states in the country that did not have laws to compensate wrongfully convicted prisoners.
“Innocent until proven guilty” or guilty until proven innocent? What are the most common causes for wrongful conviction?
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, approximately 600,000 people are incarcerated each year. However, that statistic alone does not accurately depict the enormous churn in and out of our nation’s vast prison system. It is estimated that in an average year, people will go to jail a staggering 10 million times. Jail churn is remarkably high for a number of reasons: some people are frequent offenders while others are stuck behind bars even though they have yet to be convicted in a court of law. For example, if you do not have the financial means to post bail, you may be incarcerated until your trial.
Every day, people find themselves caught in the thresholds of an overtaxed criminal justice system. It’s not hard to believe that tens of thousands of innocent people are in prison because of mistaken identification; police misconduct; mistakes made by the prosecution, judge or jury; false testimonies on behalf of eyewitnesses and informants; false confessions and the mishandling of DNA evidence.
Organizations such as The Innocence Project are hard at work to “free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone.” Their efforts have helped exonerate hundreds of innocent people and have brought to light the shocking flaws in our criminal justice system.
The phrase “innocent until proven guilty” is one of our most fundamental rights in this country. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems people are guilty until proven innocent. Seeking counsel from an experienced criminal defense lawyer is the only way to ensure your constitutional rights, which include the presumption of innocence (the state bears the burden of proving guilt), your right to an attorney and your right to exculpatory information - are protected every step of the way. Being exonerated for a crime you did not commit after the fact is a lengthy, complex process and an uphill battle. It is generally easier for a skilled criminal defense attorney to prove your innocence during the trial then after you are formally convicted.
Being charged with a crime can threaten your livelihood, your relationships, your reputation and your personal freedom. The most devastating fate an innocent person can face is imprisonment for a crime he or she did not commit. While Rhode Island’s new Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Law is a step in the right direction, it will never fully undo the injustice.
If you have been arrested for or are under investigation for a crime, it is important to seek legal representation as soon as possible. Attorney Ann Sheeley has over 25 years of experience with crimes ranging from DUI/OUI (including a Marijuana DUI) to Drug Charges to Probation Violations and Bail Hearings to Robbery, Burglary and Larceny. We are not here to judge you. We are only here to protect your rights and fight hard for your case. Contact Attorney Ann Sheeley, 24/7, by calling 401-619-5555 or emailing email@example.com.