Editorial: Move ahead with payments to wrongfully imprisoned

The Detroit News
Richard Phillips, 72, near a few of his paintings on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 at the Community Art Gallery inside the Level One Bank in Ferndale.

You can bet if the state of Michigan were owed a debt by a citizen, it would take every step possible to quickly collect the amount due.

The state should be just as diligent in paying the debts it owes to citizens.

When it comes to money promised to those who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned by the state, Michigan continues to be grossly negligent. Several of the exonerated inmates have been waiting months for their payouts because the fund established to compensate them is just about broke.

The Legislature took a first step toward ending the state's poor mouthing when the House this week approved a $10 million infusion for the fund.

The Legislature passed a law establishing the fund in 2016, but failed to include enough money to actually pay the $50,000 for every year of wrongful imprisonment to all who are due the money. Currently, there's just $323,800 left of the original $13 million appropriation.

Adding $10 million will keep the fund flush for a while. But there are already more than $10 million in petitions filed by former inmates who spent a combined 200 years behind bars for crimes they didn't commit.

Over the past 25 years, more than 70 Michigan convicts have been exonerated and released from prison.

Among them is Richard Phillips, who spent 46 years in prison before his case was overturned and is the longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmate in U.S. history. He's owed nearly $2 million.

Nathaniel Hatchett is owed $500,000 for the 10 years he was locked up on a wrongful rape conviction. But like Phillips, he's waiting for his money, even though his claim has been approved.

Asking those who have already been horribly wronged by the state to wait for the money they're owed until the Legislature gets around to acting is the wrong approach. The state should not be able use the budgeting process to delay paying its debts. The checks should be written as soon as they're approved by the Court of Claims. If the fund is empty, then the Legislature should have to come up with an emergency appropriation. 

Those released from prison after years of wrongful incarceration have enough trouble establishing lives on the outside. Along with the payments, the state should help them find jobs, refresh their life skills and establish a support network.

Many, like Phillips, have been locked up for decades, and aren't well positioned to rejoin the workforce. Some are elderly and no longer able to work.

These are people who have been wronged once by the state, and they should not be wronged again by having their compensation payments stalled.

The House bill now goes to the Senate, which should approve the appropriation, but also add a provision to move additional money into the fund as needed to cover approved claims.