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Missouri exonerees in need of help won't get much from the state

Kevin Strickland leaves the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri, hours after a judge overturned his 1979 conviction.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kevin Strickland leaving the Western Missouri Correctional Center on November 23, 2021. Despite being exonerated and spending 43 years in prison, Strickland does not qualify for compensation from the state.

In Missouri, very few inmates released after years of wrongful incarceration qualify for compensation.

Kevin Strickland’s release from prison last week called attention to Missouri’s restrictive compensation statute.

Even though Missouri is one of 36 states that offers compensation to exonerees, Strickland, who served 43 years for a 1979 triple murder a judge ruled he did not commit, is unlikely to see a dime from the state.

Law professor Sean O'Brien says compensation for wrongful convictions in Missouri is only available for people with DNA evidence to prove their innocence, something Strickland doesn’t have.

"The only people who are eligible for compensation are people who applied to the court through a particular statutory procedure to have DNA evidence tested and then have that DNA evidence prove their innocence and be released based on the DNA evidence."

Strickland could sue the state, but O'Brien says it's highly unlikely he would win.

"Not only that what the officers did was negligent, you have to go beyond that and prove that they did it in bad faith, knowing full well that their actions were unconstitutional. That's a high bar," O'Brien says.

Through a GoFundMe account set up by his attorneys, more than $1.7 million has been raised to assist Strickland in starting his life outside of prison.

That's not the experience for most prisoners released after long jail sentences. Marilyn Chappell is the founder and executive director for Exceeds Expectations, Inc., which has a program designed to educate formerly incarcerated people on finances and personal development. She says that while Strickland needs the money, he faces a lot more than financial issues.

Chappell says that after "five years, ten years, there's a lot of time has went by, the world is changing and now you're saying, 'OK, now go make a life.'"

Chappell believes mandatory programs should be in place to prepare and assist former inmates for reintegration into society.

Among the greatest challenges for released inmates is handling new responsibilities. Chappell says on the inside, prisoners have little choice over what to do or where to go.

"So being held accountable is something that is just different for them on the outside because there are demands for you to show up, for you to perform," she says.

O'Brien adds that unlike other inmates, exonerees leave prison having never committed a crime, and the tendency to place them into existing post-release support programs puts them in with convicted criminals.

"You're re-stigmatizing and you're traumatizing them all over again," says attorney Sean O'Brien.

What society needs to do according to O'Brien is "deal with exonerees in a way that recognizes their humanity and their uniqueness."

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