When The Fisc Runs Dry

Detroit had money problems, but it came out of bankruptcy. It was called a “rebirth.” That didn’t help the fund with which to pay the judgments for the people wrongfully convicted, wrongfully imprisoned. It’s effectively broke.

“The current balance in the fund is so low that a single case or two could deplete it,” Rossman-McKinney said. “We cannot and should not lead people to believe they will be compensated for their wrongful incarceration if we are unwilling to appropriate the necessary funds.”

Michigan Department of Treasury spokesman Ron Leix said last week the exoneration fund contained about $1.6 million — or $400,000 less than the $2 million it owes just one wrongfully convicted murderer, Richard Phillips. Phillips spent 46 years in prison before his case was overturned, making him the longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmate in U.S. history, according to the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan.

There are two “kinds” of people for whom the 2016 Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act exists. There are those who were the victims of misconduct, such as lying cops or witnesses, or concealment of exculpatory evidence. And those the system just failed, not because of any particular malfeasance but because it’s a flawed system. Either way, they lost years of their life to the state’s failure and, as a matter of policy, have been deemed worthy of compensation.

The state of Michigan owes Nathaniel Hatchett $500,000 — but he can’t eat the two-page court document ordering compensation for his wrongful rape conviction, and it won’t pay his rent.

There is the obvious solution, that who cares whether funds are allocated to pay this debt. If the state owes it, then why should it be different than any other judgment? Seize a state building, a patrol car, maybe a street that’s frequently traveled, and set up a toll booth to turn it into a profit center. Fun thought though that might be, it’s not a practical answer. Governments aren’t individuals and aren’t as susceptible to execution of a judgment as the ordinary judgment debtor might be.

“But we’ve not yet begun the appropriations process in the Legislature,” she said. “(Adding money to the exoneration fund) must be done through the budget process — the governor gives her recommendation, gets input from department heads, and from there the House and Senate do their budgets, and find away to come together.”

Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said in a statement: “At this time, we are not commenting on specific items in the budget until the Governor releases her executive budget in March.”

People outside of government see government as a monolith, with a vast budget and never ending source of easy revenue. After all, if the government needs more money, they can just tax the people. It’s not as if the people can stop it. But government budgets are made up of allocated and unallocated funds, which are allowed to be used for different purposes by law. The funds to pay for wrongful incarceration go into an Exoneration Fund, and the funds to pay those judgments come out of it, and nowhere else.

There is a separate bundle of issues, with more explicit solutions, directed at convictions caused by police or prosocutorial impropriety, that comprises only one cause of the problem. Those solutions, such as eliminating qualified immunity or requiring cops to carry insurance against their own malfeasance, wouldn’t help those whose wrongful convictions can’t be attributed to impropriety, but just a failed system. Plus, these solutions are replete with issues of their own, so it’s not as if these are easy answers, even if one is absolutely certain that these are great ideas.

But what does this have to do with the guys who spend years, decades, in prison and now hold worthless paper?

“It ain’t fair, man; it ain’t fair,” said Salter, who was released from prison Aug. 16 — his 36th birthday — after serving 15 years for a murder he didn’t commit.

“It’s sad — they convict us, and then when we’re found innocent they put us out into the world with nothing, no paperwork, no birth certificate,” said Salter, who started a nonprofit, Innocence Maintained, which helps exonerated ex-prisoners get basic necessities like food and clothing.

Aaron Salter didn’t ask to be convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. He didn’t ask to go to prison for 15 years. He doesn’t get a vote on funding allocation for the Exoneration Fund to pay his $750,000 judgment. No, it’s not fair. He lost 15 years of his life and “Oops, sorry” doesn’t do much to help.

There is an obvious answer, that the state needs to allocate money to pay off these judgments. And if there isn’t enough loose change under the cushions on the couch, then it has to tax its residents for it. And many of its residents aren’t doing all that great, and dont really want to give up any more of their money to the state, particularly when they won’t get a new road or better services for it. This is money flushed down the toilet, as far as residents are concerned. It’s not that they don’t approve of compensating the wrongfully convicted, as a concept, but once the judgments are paid, there isn’t much bang for the buck.

It’s easy to say that the state did wrong, owes the money and has to find some way to pay it. But the money has to come from somewhere. Cut police salaries and pensions? The unions won’t take it lightly. Stop wasteful spending? That should be the case anyway, but there’s always an excuse for it. They could reallocate priorities, putting money earmarked for something else toward paying off at least part of the judgments, but there will still be some function unfunded, and someone to complain about their deprivation.

Ultimately, money always comes from the taxpayers, as that’s how governments get funding to do the things we do together. Like imprison innocent people. They could stop imprisoning people for ever-longer sentences, but that would require a fundamental change of mindset about punishment, and would at best eliminate only part of the problem. Could they stop convicting innocent people?

Even when there’s no impropriety, the system isn’t good enough to stop getting it wrong. And the guys who were exonerated need to eat today, not when budget allocation time rolls around.

14 thoughts on “When The Fisc Runs Dry

  1. paleo

    Help me out here. The law says that a certain subset of people are supposed to be paid a certain amount of dollars. Those people are not being paid those dollars. Intentionally. Isn’t somebody, or several somebodies, violating the law? And if someone violates the law, isn’t there supposed to be some form of punishment?

  2. Jim Majkowski

    The “fisc” isn’t all that dry. According to MLive, as of the end of August, 2018:

    Spending to date on Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon’s Flint water crisis legal team has surpassed what Genesee County spent on court-appointed attorneys for every indigent defendant in the county in the last fiscal year. New accounting requested by MLive-The Flint Journal from three state agencies shows spending on attorneys hired to represent current and former state employees charged with crimes or accused of civil wrongdoing in Flint has topped $26 million.

    No part of that total has risen higher than the spending on Lyon, who earlier this month had the case against him, including charges of involuntary manslaughter, bound over to Genesee Circuit Court for trial.

    Like all state employees accused of crimes or facing civil litigation tied to the Flint water crisis, Lyon isn’t paying his own attorney bills — Michigan taxpayers are.

    Attorneys for Lyon have billed taxpayers $1.6 million to date, according to MDHHS. Genesee Circuit Court Administrator Barbara Menear said Genesee County as a whole spent $1.5 million in the last fiscal year on public defenders.

    New Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and AG Dana Nessel have both announced they want to figure out a way to cut down on the defense (and prosecution, too) costs.

  3. Bryan Burroughs

    If Joe Schmoe fails to pay a fine to the gov’t because has no money, he gets thrown in jail. If the gov’t fails to pay Joe Schmoe because it doesn’t have the money, everybody shrugs.

  4. Jake

    If we’re allowed to theory craft for just a moment: On top of the steps legislators could take to mitigate the future risk of wrongful imprisonment, including ending qualified immunity and requiring police and prosecutor malpractice insurance, local, state, and federal courts could be required to carry insurance covering them against claims connected to unlawful imprisonment. The underwriters would love that one.

    This, of course, will not help the unfortunate men and women presently waiting at the far end of a very long line of people and institutions waiting to get their money from Detroit, but future members of this awful cohort will at least reap their losses.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re not allowed, both because that’s a rabbit hole and stupid simplistic ideas are saved for Tuesdays. This ends here.

    2. PseudonymousKid

      Damnit, Jake. I had my money on you trying to derail the topic into a conversation about Universal Basic Income. Majorly disappointed you mentioned the scourge of civilization instead.

      1. Jake

        While I’m honored that you are paying attention PK, I’ve paid enough attention to your intellect to expect you to know better, than to gamble on the next note in jazz improvisation.

  5. The Real Kurt

    Dreaming big dreams here…

    Have a hearing to determine responsibility for the wrongful conviction.

    Seize the homes or other property of those responsible.

    Never gonna happen, but we can dream – better than buying a lottery ticket…


  6. B. McLeod

    Maybe Michigan can get a loan from the Hanoverians. I have heard they make a lot of money at the Hanover Fisc. People talk about it all the time.

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