In late 2016, former Governor Rick Snyder signed the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, which went into effect the following March.
The law compensates people exonerated of wrongful convictions in Michigan with $50,000 for each year they spent behind bars.
In 2018, Richard Phillips became the longest-serving exoneree in the country after he was cleared of a 1971 homicide conviction. But Phillips has yet to receive any compensation for the 46 years he spent in prison.
David Moran is the co-founder of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, which led the effort to exonerate Phillips. He says that the exoneree compensation has “not worked as it was intended,” and that the state legislature failed to provide enough funding to actually pay back exonerees for their time served.
Although a companion bill passed alongside the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act grants exonerees access to the same services available to parolees. Moran says exonerated people generally don't utilize those porgrams because going to a parole officer is "kind of like being back in the Department of Corrections again."
There are no state programs specifically designed to help exonerees re-enter society. So when Phillips was released in March of last year, he says the support he recieved came from elsewhere.
“There was no support except for the support that I got from my attorneys, the Innocence Clinic, and a few people that donated money to my GoFundMe program, which I appreciated because I needed that very much to get started on,” Phillips said.
Phillips struggled financially in his first couple months as a returned citizen. Eventually, to make ends meet, Phillips began selling the paintings he had created while incarcerated.
“That didn’t feel too good because my artwork was something that I treasured as part of my soul. I mean I put so much effort, so much emotion into those pieces of art when I was in prison because it was keeping me sane to be able to do the time,” Phillips said.
Moran was involved in the eight-year negotiation process with former State Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office and other stakeholders to draft the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.
He says that exonerees and the attorneys that represent them faced a range of unexpected procedural barriers once the law passed, possibly due to concerns that some exonerees seeking compensation “weren’t really innocent.”
“Our counter to that was telling people how hard it is to get exonerated, how few of these cases we can win. When people get exonerated, it’s because there’s really overwhelming evidence that they didn’t do it,” Moran said.
The Whitmer administration has taken steps to allocate the money necessary to compensate exonerees. The Governor’s recent budget proposal requested $10 million for that purpose, and the state Senate will soon vote on House Bill 4286, which would provide another $10 million.
Under the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, the state of Michigan owes Phillips around $2.3 million. While Phillips acknowledges that that money would certainly help pay the bills, he says that he will be "all right" whether or not he gets that compensation.
“I feel blessed, really. Just to be here, to have lived long enough to really have a chance to enjoy my freedom,” Phillips said.
Since being exonerated, Phillips has been spending his time advocating for criminal justice reform, building and rebuilding personal connections, and supporting himself through his artwork.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.