Certificates of actual innocence are the highest form of expunging one’s criminal record. These certificates go beyond just sealing the charge from the party’s criminal record but also recognizes that the charge should have never existed and the party should have never been arrested in the first place. A certificate of actual innocence is only available to those who were convicted of crimes that they were later found innocent of.
A certificate of innocence is important to exonerated individuals because a mark on a criminal record can unfortunately persist to damage their life even following an exoneration. Having charges on one’s criminal record can bar exonerees from many parts of life and can damage their career, their image, and that of their family. A criminal record can keep them from being able to rent a home, from getting a good job, from being approved for a loan, and much more. An exonerated individual should not continue to suffer such struggles after they have already suffered a false arrest or conviction. An innocent person should never suffer the damages for a crime they did not commit.
It seems obvious that those found innocent and exonerated of false convictions deserve certificates of innocence, at the least, as a step to begin rebuilding their damaged lives. However, this is not so simple in many states. Following a massive scandal in Chicago surrounding police Sergeant Ronald Watts, numerous convictions have been overturned. It was found that this sergeant’s corruption was responsible for numerous wrongful convictions and those were subsequently overturned last year with more cases expected to surface as time goes on. A number of men who served time in prison because of these false convictions have received formal certificates of innocence as is laid out in Illinois statute.
However, an issue has come up for some of Sergeant Watts’ victims. According to Illinois statute, certificates of innocence can only be rewarded to those who actually served time in prison for their wrongful convictions. This has left five innocent men, who were only sentenced to probation in their cases, denied these certificates. These men are planning to appeal their cases to a higher court, but as it currently stands in Illinois statute they do not have a right to a certificate of innocence unless they spent time in prison.
This is a serious flaw in the system that allows innocent people to fall through the cracks. While few things can compare to the damage done by serving time in prison, a criminal record of any kind comes with the same stigma and societal damages. Even though these men avoided the harsh punishment of incarceration they still endured the struggles of being on supervision and they can still be barred from access to things like homes and jobs because of their records. An innocent person deserves their innocence regardless of what level to which they have suffered. The state is denying these men a fully cleaned slate simply because they were not damaged enough in the eyes of the courts. Any damage done to an innocent citizen because of a crime they never committed is too much damage. Every exoneree deserves formal innocence declared by the courts.