For the wrongfully convicted, Illinois offers little help

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

Jermaine Walker talks about his classes at Loyola University Chicago, where he started school this year. Walker was exonerated last year in a 2006 drug case for which he spent 10 years in prison.


Jermaine Walker makes plans with the urgency of a man making up for lost time.

Walker was locked in prison for 10 years, convicted of selling cocaine, before authorities finally discovered that they had been wrong about the evidence against him. In April, 2016, he was exonerated, and he since has filed a civil lawsuit against the city for its role in his wrongful conviction. He has found housing in the South Loop, worked two part-time jobs, taken out loans. And in January, he started school at Loyola University Chicago, where he is majoring in business and minoring in paralegal studies.

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And when he is finally paid the $188,000 the state of Illinois owes him for the decade he spent behind bars, Walker said he will invest the money to sustain him in his future plans.

He wants to be a lawyer, one day, already planning to attend law school at Loyola after he gets his undergraduate degree. He wants to fight racial discrimination and advocate for people like him.

For now, he’s doing it on his own.

“I am what you would call a do-it-yourself type of person,” Walker, now 39, said.

It appears lucky that he has that skill.

The State of Illinois has passed a series of measures designed to help people like Walker get back on their feet after spending years and sometimes decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. There is the promise of compensation from the state. There are statutes promising job placement services, free mental health counseling, and financial aid for higher education.

But Walker is among a growing number of Illinois men who are finding that the laws promising support for exonerees are mostly illusory, both because of the state’s financial turmoil and because some of those laws just sit there, never fully implemented.

“It’s been heartbreaking,” said Laura Caldwell, of seeing exonerees struggle to prove their innocence, and then find the state fails to help them get their lives back in order.

Caldwell runs a legal clinic at Loyola University Chicago School of Law designed to help exonerees find jobs and housing and get their records expunged. The program, Life After Innocence, also helped push legislation that promise exonerees mental health services and education grants.

“My deep and persistent frustration is we’ve passed these bills and the only thing funded and implemented is you can get (the crime) expunged,” she said.

Out of the roughly 30 states that have laws mandating state compensation for the wrongfully convicted, Illinois’ compensation money is on the lower end, according to information compiled by the Innocence Project. Several states including Alabama, Florida and Mississippi pay the exonerated $50,000 for each year they spent in prison, the same amount the federal government provides. Texas pays $80,000 in compensation per year, and compensates for child care, 120 hours of tuition at a career center or college and other re-entry services.

Illinois uses a formula based on time in prison that is adjusted annually for cost of living. This year, the maximum amount is $222,939, payable to any prisoners wrongfully locked up for 14 or more years, according to Brad Bucher, administrator of the state’s Court of Claims which approves exonerees’ petitions for compensation.

Not only is the amount less generous than many other states; it also is not being paid currently, as Illinois trudges through its fiscal crisis. Walker is one of 18 exonerees who have compensation approved but remain waiting to be paid.

The Court of Claims cannot dispense money to exonerees on its own. Each exoneree’s payment must be approved by the state legislature each year in a spring special awards bill, Bucher said.

For the past two years amid the state budget impasse, that awards bill has not been passed, leaving exonerees waiting. Last spring, a stopgap budget bill that included the awards claims of 14 exonerated men passed both houses of the General Assembly, only for the entire bill to be vetoed by Governor Bruce Rauner. A later stopgap budget that Rauner signed, which funded some functions of the state government through the rest of 2016, did not include those claims.

Bucher said the total owed to the 18 exonerees with claims approved is about $3.4 million. Another three exonerees have claims pending before the Court of Claims, he said.

In the past exonerees had to wait a few months for their payments, said Larry Golden, founding director of the Illinois Innocence Project in Springfield. But now the wait has become indefinite. The project represented Angel Gonzalez, who was exonerated after serving nearly 20 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.

Gonzalez has been waiting since the summer of 2015 for $220,732 from the state.

Paul Phillips and Lewis Gardner are also waiting for payments of the same amount. In 2014 their convictions were vacated in a 1992 North Side murder case. Teenagers at the time, Phillips and Gardner falsely confessed to being lookouts for the murder, a case in which the primary suspect who was convicted had been in a police lockup at the time of the crime. Phillips and Gardner spent nearly 15 years in prison before being released on parole and eventually exonerated.

The money “would be extremely helpful to them,” said attorney Flint Taylor, founding partner of the People’s Law Office, who represents Phillips and Gardner. “They have a lawsuit pending in federal court, but that doesn’t bring you any money until it does, if it does.”

“It’s been caught up in vetoes and this two-year impasse,” said John Patterson, a spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, who sponsored the stopgap bill that was vetoed last year. Cullerton included the 18 exoneree’s claims in a new budget bill he introduced in the state senate in January.

As a result of the budget impasse the state also is not paying tuition grants to exonerees to obtain either a high school diploma or four years of undergraduate or graduate study at a public college or university, despite the passage of a July 2015 law. Though rules for the program were adopted in January 2016, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission has not been able to implement the program without state funding, spokeswoman Lynne Baker said.

Other services have also been slow to take shape. Though state law stipulates the Illinois Department of Human Services was to have created a re-entry program offering mental health care to exonerees by July 2011, a spokeswoman for the department said rules are still being developed for the program.

“Rules for the re-entry program were never introduced under the prior administration,” DHS spokeswoman Meredith Krantz said in a statement. She did not explain why.

Krantz the department would provide counseling if a qualified exoneree approached DHS on his or her own. But exonerees are not told of the program, and Krantz said no exonerees have applied.

Similarly, state law specifically grants the wrongfully convicted eligibility to receive job placement services from the Department of Employment Security, but the department does not have any outreach programs for exonerees, said spokesman Bob Gough. DES does not track how many exonerees have received help with the department, Gough said, and exonerees would be treated the same as other job seekers.

“Anyone who needs our services comes on their own or they could work with one of our community or faith-based partners,” Gough said in a statement.

But when inmates receive their certificates of innocence, they aren’t told anything about where to go next for help, attorneys for recent exonerees said. Neither Golden of the Illinois Innocence Project, nor Taylor, attorney for Phillips and Gardner, were even aware of the state laws that were intended to create programs for their clients.

“Our clients haven’t had any benefit from any of those programs,” Taylor said. “I haven’t heard anything about that and I don’t think they have either.”

Walker said he “absolutely” would use such services if they were available.

Jarrett Adams, a Chicago man who spent 10 years in prison in a Wisconsin sexual assault case before his conviction was overturned, said exonerees need re-entry services, particularly mental health care, even more than they need monetary compensation.

“When you get home and you get embraced by people who believe in you, it’s intoxicating to a certain extent,” he said. “You don’t quite feel all of the pain yet.”

Adams, who was 17 when he was convicted, said a decade in prison “took (his) youth away.” When he was released in 2007, he received nothing­ — money or services —from Wisconsin, where he was imprisoned, and nothing from Illinois, where he returned.

He said money would not have prepared him to come home to new family members who didn’t know him. It would not have helped him explain to potential employers the 10-year gap in his resume. Nor would it have eased his mind when he woke up at 4:30 every morning, even as a free man.

“That’s what time your cell bars open up (in prison),” he explained. “Whoever’s sleeping when they open, that wasn’t the safest.”

Adams began seeing a therapist about a year and a half after he was released from prison, using health insurance he had through a job as an investigator in a federal public defender’s office.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How are you able to get as far as you are?’” he said. “It was because of counseling … You need to be able to sit down and talk with someone.”

Now an attorney and an advocate for the wrongfully convicted, Adams is working with a fellow exoneree to build a re-entry house on the West Side of Chicago so that those who are recently found innocent and released from prison can find a place to stay, access job and financial training programs and receive medical care. The project, called Life After Justice, ran out of money and Adams is seeking donations and volunteers.

He expressed frustration that the wrongfully convicted don’t get basic help that ex-offenders are routinely offered when released from prison.

For exonerees, “there is no parole officer, there is no probation officer, no one making sure you fill out a resume,” Adams said.

Walker acknowledged that he’s determined to succeed with or without state help, but has found regular challenges. Just finding an apartment with no history of credit, for example, proved difficult.

“You mentally think you can do it but your body is fighting back and forth,” he said. “I’ve been hustlin’, trying to stay above water.”