The Michigan non-profit Proving Innocence will start giving money to exonerated inmates when they are released from prison.
The organization is dedicated to helping people who are wrongfully convicted. It will provide $500 to those freed with the help of organizations in the Innocence Network; the network already provides $2,000 to every exoneree they help. It will give $800 to people exonerated without the help of a national program.
Bill Branham is the secretary of Proving Innocence. He is also one of their eight board members.
Michigan already has a program designed to give money to exonerees—theoretically, the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act should they are paid $50,000 for every year they were wrongfully imprisoned. But Branham says time limits, legal fees, and the condition that one be exonerated by “new evidence” prevent many people from receiving the money.
“If you were exonerated for some other reason, irregularities in the process or something, you would not qualify,” he says. “They have to hire a lawyer and go to court to get this money. You’d think [if] the court system wrongfully convicted them and the court system now says they’re innocent, you’d think it’d be a done deal. But it’s not.”
He says the money from Proving Innocence will be given without conditions and is intended to go toward the exoneree’s everyday expenses. The majority of the donations to Proving Innocence currently come from their eight board members.
This funding was used for the first time last week when Proving Innocence gave $800 to Darrell Siggers, a man wrongfully imprisoned for 34 years. Branham met with Siggers and his son before giving him the money.
“I just handed him this envelope and I said, ‘I’m so glad that I can give this to you to make your start just a little bit better,’” Branham says. “And it so happens that when they left our house they were going to go to the Secretary of State to get him a driver’s license. So he was actually able to pay for that himself. He didn’t have to ask his son for the money.”
He says exonerees often come out of prison with very little money or resources.
“I think [the money] gives them not only the ability to establish themselves, to pay rent if they need to, but it gives them a little dignity, that they actually have something that can pay for this rather than depending on other people.”
Branham says that some people often do not understand how difficult it is for an exoneree to adjust back into everyday life.
“Try getting a job after an experience like that,” he says. “You'd think, ‘oh, now you're innocent.’ People just don't look at it like that and they've got a real uphill battle. We're helping at just one point which is the very beginning.”
Proving Innocence expects another Michigan exoneree to be released in September.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Michigan had 14 exonerees in 2017—the third highest of any state.