LOS ANGELES — For years, people wrongfully convicted of crimes and then released from prison still paid federal income taxes on the money they received for their time behind bars. But that all changed in 2015 with the Wrongful Conviction Tax Relief Act, which gave exonerees the ability to apply for refunds — eventually retroactively.
Congress, however, didn’t come up with a way to let people know they were entitled to the money.
Jon Eldan, a lawyer who runs a one-man nonprofit named After Innocence, took it upon himself to survey as many publicly known exonerees as possible to find those the government failed to alert. He spends his days making hundreds of phone calls to men and women who were wrongfully incarcerated, exonerated, and released from prison.
Every now and then, if he’s lucky, he finds who he’s looking for — and if they’re lucky, he tells them the government owes them back taxes, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Part of the great difficulty of exonerees after release is that we haven’t been paying attention to exonerees after release,” said Eldan, whose work with After Innocence consists mainly of helping wrongfully convicted people get access to health, legal, and other services. “So it’s not that much of a surprise that, when Congress did this really wonderful piece of legislation for wrongfully convicted people, there was a disconnect.”
Mark Canter spent eight years in a North Michigan prison for a murder he didn’t commit and received over a million dollars in a lawsuit settlement after he was released. He used the money to start a business and help his family but eventually succumbed to substance abuse — which he now understands was a way to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Eventually the money ran out,” he said.
Canter recently learned from Eldan that he’s entitled to tens of thousands of dollars in taxes he paid after the settlement — plus more than 15 years’ interest. His accountant told him that if the refund goes through, he may get more than $100,000.
For Canter — newly sober and broke — that could be enough to get him back on his feet. “It may even give me the opportunity for a fresh start once again,” he said.
This segment originally aired December 11, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.