November 29, 2012

ONCE THE PAPERWORK reached his desk, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) needed just one day to grant a conditional pardon to Johnathan Montgomery, the young man who served four years of a seven-year sentence for a “crime” apparently invented from whole cloth by his accuser. Mr. Montgomery, 26, was released Nov. 20, just in time for Thanksgiving, after receiving a phone call from the governor himself; his accuser, who recanted her claims, has been charged with perjury.

Mr. McDonnell was right to move swiftly. Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that Virginia will act with similar speed to compensate Mr. Montgomery for what the governor rightly called “a travesty of justice.” Even if the courts officially exonerate Mr. Montgomery — a slow process at best — he is eligible to receive shockingly little money, and even less help, from the state whose criminal justice system dealt him such an injustice.

Unlike about half the states, Virginia does have legal guidelines for compensating people who have been wrongly convicted. They are entitled to an amount equal to 90 percent of the state’s individual per-capita income for each year they spent behind bars, up to an arbitrary maximum of 20 years. If the state Court of Appeals rules that Mr. Montgomery is innocent — and it is hard to imagine why it would not — he would be entitled to roughly $160,000.

That’s a paltry amount for a young man who has lost not just four years of income but also four years of vocational or professional development, not to mention the physical, psychological and emotional toll he suffered in confinement. While Mr. Montgomery’s peers were starting their careers, learning skills and courting and marrying, he was sitting behind bars.

Virginia takes no account of the non-economic suffering of those who are wrongly convicted. Unlike prisoners who are paroled, who might at least receive some career counseling, Mr. Montgomery is not entitled to any state-sponsored help after having been denied his liberty for four years.

What’s more, the financial compensation is not even automatic. Even if the courts declare his innocence, Mr. Montgomery would receive no monetary compensation until a bill authorizing payment is enacted by the General Assembly. That is unlikely to happen before 2014.

At that point, Mr. Montgomery would likely receive an initial lump payment of only 20 percent of the amount to which he is entitled, with the balance to be paid as an annuity after that. At a guess, he might get a monthly check for $1,000 over the course of 15 or 20 years. That is considerably less than the U.S. government pays to people wrongly convicted in federal courts.

In issuing his pardon, the governor sounded suitably outraged and sympathetic. But if the state truly wants to demonstrate remorse and make up for the wrong it has done to Mr. Montgomery, it should rewrite its laws to provide for treatment and counseling, as well as more money.