A group of bipartisan legislators introduced a bill Monday that would increase the yearly-allotted funds to free innocent convicts up to the federal level of $50,000 per year.
According to a statement released by the bill’s supporters, this would be an increase from the current compensation levels of $5,000 per year with an aggregate cap of $25,000.
The statement also said the bill includes several measures to help freed convicts re-enter society successfully. These measures include access to social services and other forms of financial assistance helping reimburse the freed convict for attorney and court fees spent during the trial.
Keith Findley, University of Wisconsin law professor and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said the bill updates freed convict compensation. Findley said Wisconsin is ranked last in compensation for states with plans, and this issue has not been addressed in more than 30 years.
“There’s no science to figuring out what those years are worth,” Findley said. “Most would say there is no sum of money that we’d take for the total destruction of our lives that can be caused by a wrongful conviction. It’s just a matter of doing the best we can, and what this reflects is that we should comply to the federal norm of $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment.”
According to Findley, the court system is not designed for those who are not supposed to be in prison.
Findley also said the wrongly convicted face more than just monetary costs.
“They come out having lost their jobs, housing, family, friends and connections to the community,” Findley said. “They suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s hard to get employment, because how do you explain a 15 to 20 year gap in your resume?”
Findley also spoke about the range of social services the bill would provide, citing counseling, access to health care, employment and housing assistance.
Stacy Harbaugh, Wisconsin American Civil Liberties Union spokesperson, noted the benefits of the financial services that would be provided once the freed convicts were released.
“There are really basic things that those who are re-entering into society need, like housing transportation and securing an ID card,” Harbaugh said. “Those are things they get right out of prison, but that’s just the first couple of weeks. It’s also overcoming the stigma and reintegrating for the long term.”
Harbaugh discussed a man who was wrongfully accused of rape and recently released from prison, saying the man worked with the Wisconsin Innocence Project to get to his conviction analyzed. When he was released, there was little structure of support for his re-entry into society.
According to Harbaugh, this is a common problem for the wrongly convicted.
“Those who have been wrongfully convicted face huge hurdles to try to re-integrate and assimilate back into society,” Harbaugh said. “For those who are wrongfully convicted, it would be a great step forward, and it’s a pleasure to see that there is bipartisan support [for this bill].”