Innocent but Criminal for Life
Updated: Nov 7, 2020
When someone is released from prison after being wrongfully convicted, what happens to them? Many might assume that after exoneration, someone who was wrongfully convicted would be able to return to their life, and go back to the way things were before they were imprisoned. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. It might be shocking, but innocent exonerees typically receive fewer resources than guilty people who are released after serving their sentence. Unlike released convicts, exonerees are not eligible for programs that helps them reintegrate to the community. Moreover, they still face a stigma when returning to “normal” life. Often applications for jobs and housing ask have you ever been charged or convicted with a felony – exonerees typically have to respond “yes,” even if they were then exonerated.
In The Effects of Race and Criminal History on Landlords’ (Un)willingness to Rent to Exonerees, Zannella and colleagues (2020) examined one of these barriers for exonerees: housing. The authors examined how often landlords responded to a request for rental information, and whether or not the renter’s race or criminal history can have an effect on their response rate. Not only were landlords less likely to respond to exonerees than to applicants without any criminal history, they were all less likely to respo
nd to Black and Indigenous applicants than White applicants. This is particularly problematic because in the United States and Canada, Black and Indigenous individuals are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, and in populations of exonerees.
Although exonerees are released from prison after a wrongful conviction, they are not immune to the stigma that accompanies being released from prison. The authors offer up several explanations for why people may have a stigma against exonerees, like the just-world hypothesis, and studies that show that people rate exonerees and parolees similarly negatively. This begs the question, if exonerees are stigmatized as if they had committed the crime they were imprisoned for, why are they not awarded access to the same resources post-release? What more can we be doing for the members of our society that are the victims of wrongful conviction?