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What happens to exonerees?

We know that quite a few people who had been in prison have been exonerated and freed in recent years, and we know that a fund was created by the Lege last year to give them some compensation for their years of unjust imprisonment. But there’s still work to be done to try to make things right for these folks.

“Exonerees aren’t given a dime when they leave prison. Many don’t have a place to lay their heads at night,” says University of Texas at Arlington Exoneree Project director Jaimie Page, who helped get Scott and Simmons identification and other staples after their release. “If they have no family — and many do not — they are essentially homeless.”

The $10,000 reintegration payment was meant to combat this issue, says Kelvin Bass, a spokesman for state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, the lawmaker who added the reintegration language into the bill. Bass says West’s office has noticed some weaknesses with the Tim Cole law — namely, how that reintegration money gets paid.

The law calls for the creation of a new division within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide help and benefits to exonerees, including the initial $10,000 payment. But that division is not yet operational, Bass says. Meanwhile, while the measure says the comptroller’s office is in charge of dispensing the monthly compensation, it leaves the TDCJ responsible for paying the initial reintegration money.

The TDCJ acknowledges it is responsible. But agency spokesman Jason Clark says the $10,000 is deducted from the total sum awarded to the exoneree as restitution — which is overseen by the comptroller. He said the money doesn’t start to flow until the inmate is formally exonerated, not just directly upon his or her release. And even when the initial money does flow, Clark said, it can only be used for living expenses, though the department also offers case management services to link the wrongfully imprisoned with needed services.

“It’s a great idea, but there is nothing in place,” Bass says. “And even with being awarded the compensation, there is no structure. Just handing somebody money isn’t enough.”

What we’ve got here is a good start. Texas is actually pretty progressive on this front compared to other states. One might churlishly argue that it’s because we’ve had so many more opportunities to free wrongly convicted inmates than those other states, but let’s not quibble. The Lege has done good work here. There’s just more of it to do, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Grits has more.

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