September 15, 2023
Philadelphia residents wrongly convicted of crimes would be given $500 upon being released from prison under a set of bills introduced in City Council on Thursday.
The legislative package, proposed by Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, aims to help exonerated people get their lives back on track after leaving prison. If passed, they would receive services intended to help them secure housing, gain an education and find employment.
In addition to the $500 payments, covered by a fund for exonerated people, wrongly convicted people would be given access to housing voucher lists and counselors that can help them find homes.
They also would be made eligible for Catto Scholarships from the Community College of Philadelphia, which cover tuition and help defray the costs of books, food and transportation. Under the legislation, those scholarships could be used for certificate programs, too.
The city's Fair Chance Hiring initiative — which supports businesses that hire formerly incarcerated people — would be amended to include exonerated people, protecting them from employment discrimination and removing barriers for job-seekers. The city also would help them obtain retroactive health care benefits and photo IDs.
Thomas said he believes the city has a "legal responsibility and moral duty" to support people trying to access basic necessities after being wrongly imprisoned.
"Even when legally expunged from all wrongdoing, exonerated individuals lack access to crucial reentry supports to get them back on their feet," Thomas said in an emailed press release. "We must give exonerated individuals a fair shot at life outside of prison and provide the necessary guardrails for housing, education and job opportunities."
Over the last 10 years, 36 city residents have been cleared of crimes based on new evidence of innocence, according to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. Since Larry Krasner became district attorney in 2018, 32 people have been exonerated. Some had been incarcerated for more than three decades.
In early 2021, Christopher Williams was exonerated of four murders — and acquitted on two others – after spending nearly three decades in prison and 25 years on death row. He spent 22 months reconnecting with his family and working as a carpenter before being fatally shot while attending a funeral in North Philadelphia last December.
After Williams died, Krasner spokesperson Jane Roh bemoaned the lack of support Pennsylvania provides wrongly-convicted people.
"What Chris endured as a twice-wrongfully convicted exoneree is unfathomable," Roh said in January. "And that his short-lived freedom was marked by struggle, as Pennsylvania is one of 12 states in the U.S. that does not compensate the wrongfully convicted, is unconscionable."
The federal standard for compensating exonerated people is about $50,000 per year of incarceration, under a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2004. The law serves as a model for states creating their own laws to support exonerated people.
Under a 2013 law, New Jersey provides exonerated residents up to $50,000 for every year that they were incarcerated. Previously, the state provided up to $20,000 per year.
The bills introduced by Thomas were drafted with support from Community Legal Services, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and the Defender Association of Philadelphia. These organizations can help exonerated people check their expungement records and understand their protections under the law.
"People who have been wrongly convicted deserve a fair chance to achieve economic stability, but we know that so many returning citizens, including exonerated individuals, are shut out of housing, employment and other opportunities," said Debby Freedman, executive director of Community Legal Services. "Incarceration decimates families and communities, and this legislation is an important step towards giving wrongly convicted people a fresh start as they seek to stabilize their lives."
Thomas' legislative package will be referred to a City Council committee for hearings before a full vote.