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CM Thomas unveils reentry support legislation for exonerated individuals

PHILADELPHIA, PA — Over the past decade, approximately 40 Philadelphians convicted of crimes have been exonerated and released from prison. Unlike many other states, Pennsylvania does not have an emergency reentry fund for the wrongly convicted. Without this type of reentry support, cities are susceptible to lawsuits, and returning citizens are on many waiting lists for reentry services. Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, in partnership with Community Legal Services, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project,  has proposed legislation to give access to these supports with the goal of providing Exonerated Justice and eliminating barriers to reentry.

“Even when legally expunged from all wrongdoing, exonerated individuals lack access to crucial reentry supports to get them back on their feet,” said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas. “We must give exonerated individuals a fair shot at life outside of prison and provide the necessary guardrails for housing, education, and job opportunities. This two-part legislative package is a crucial first step in ensuring justice for exonerated Philadelphians. I look forward to working with Community Legal Services, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project to protect exonerated individuals going forward.”

A system of benefits providing for the basic needs of individuals who have been wrongly imprisoned is the city’s legal responsibility and moral duty. The Exonerated Justice package proposes that the following services be provided to exonerated Philadelphians to be coordinated as their expected release date approaches. The Exonoreated Justice package proposal consists of 5 components:

  • Education- access to Catto Scholarships at Community College of Philadelphia expanded to allow for use in certificate and non-degree programs.
  • Housing- access to Office of Supportive Housing lists for housing vouchers as well as counseling to assist with housing placements.
  • Employment – amend Fair Chance Hiring legislation to include exonerated individuals to remove possible barriers to employment.
  • Justice for Exonerees Fund – create an emergency reentry fund within the Managing Director’s Office to provide $500 to each exonerated Philadelphian upon release from prison.
  • Reentry Support – overall assistance with identifying and applying to appropriate support and benefit programs. Most notably, assistance applying to Medicaid for immediate and retroactive healthcare benefits and PHL City ID for photo identification.

“The Pennsylvania Innocence Project and our clients are grateful to Councilmember Thomas for kicking off the fall 2023 session of Philadelphia City Council by taking this first step toward justice for wrongfully convicted people and highlighting the critical need to provide reentry to support to exonerated individuals,” said Meredith Rapkin, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Innocence Project. “Currently, when wrongfully convicted people are finally released from incarceration, often after decades, they do not even receive support that those released on probation or parole rightly receive. This proposal will make it easier for exonerated people to secure their most basic needs and begin to rebuild the lives stolen from them. In the spirit of this effort, we call on the Pennsylvania legislature to join the 37 other states that provide financial compensation to exonerated individuals.”

When called upon, a designated social worker in an agency, community umbrella agency, Community Legal Services, Pennsylvania Innocence Project, or other partner could be relied on for the occasional recurring work. Legal entities such as the Defender Association of Philadelphia and Community Legal Services can be utilized to check expungement records and explicit protections.

“CLS is grateful to Councilmember Thomas for recognizing the significant challenges facing people returning from incarceration and for introducing legislation to help exonerated Philadelphians who are struggling to get by,” said Debby Freedman, Executive Director of Community Legal Services. “People who have been wrongly convicted deserve a fair chance to achieve economic stability, but we know that so many returning citizens, including exonerated individuals, are shut out of housing, employment, and other opportunities. Incarceration decimates families and communities, and this legislation is an important step towards giving wrongly convicted people a fresh start as they seek to stabilize their lives.”

“Entanglement with the justice system often does permanent harm to individuals and their families,” said Keisha Hudson, Chief Defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “For those who are ultimately exonerated, the stigma, pain and anguish caused by the system can remain for a lifetime. The Defender Association invests heavily in supportive services and promotes the use of existing community resources to improve outcomes for justice system-involved people. The Exonerated Justice legislation is a welcome and much-needed step toward improving the lives of the wrongfully accused.”

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Contact: Benjamin Wilcox
September 14, 2023

[email protected]

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