In an effort to improve the way Wisconsin compensates individuals who were wrongfully convicted, state legislators introduced a bill that would increase monetary compensation and provide transition services.

As the law currently stands, wrongfully convicted persons receive $5,000 for a year of their life being locked away or $25,000 for five years. The new legislation would increase and fixed at $50,000 per year with a $1 million limit, according to the bill. It would also allow for the surviving spouse or domestic partner, child, parent or sibling of a person who is entitled to claim the compensation if the exonerated has passed away.

Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, who was a former law enforcement officer, introduced the legislation. Wanggaard said he recognizes mistakes can happen in the justice system and that an innocent person can be convicted.

Wanggaard knows lost time cannot be given back.

“Law enforcement workers work hard to find the right person that committed the crime, but sometimes they get the wrong person,” Wanggaard said. “Then through DNA, we find out that that person has been locked up for 20 years for a crime they didn’t do.”

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Cristina Borde, supervising attorney for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which operates out of the University of Wisconsin Law School, said the changes to the law will streamline the process exonerees have to go through.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project is a clinical program that provides legal representation for people who claim to be wrongfully convicted and looks to exonerate those who claim to be.

“It is very difficult to get people exonerated let alone compensated for the time that they have spent in jail,” Borde said.

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The Innocence Project has helped 30 individuals get exonerated since it began operations in the 1990s, according to its website.

In addition to upping the compensation price per year, the bill would also provide transition services, like better healthcare, to those just coming out of the system for up to five years. Under the bill, individuals would pay the same health insurance premium as state employees, with the state paying the premium balance.

Borde believes the bill will help in a number of different ways especially since it is retroactive. People who are looking for compensation at this time will be able to ask for the higher compensation if the bill gets passed, Borde said.

“This would allow for exonerees to have some concrete financial stability,” Borde said. “Not to mention, there are many exonerees are struggling with mental health issues and this bill would provide that service to them.”

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In terms of employment, exonerees have a difficult time finding jobs after being released due to the fact their records are open to the public. But this bill would seal their files and would give exonerated people a chance to gain employment, Borde said.

Borde and other members of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, along with wrongfully convicted exonerees, testified in front of legislators about how this bill could help those who have been wronged.

“People think that once they get exonerated they are able to sue and get thousands of dollars, but that doesn’t happen often,” Borde said.

The bill was referred to the Joint Finance Committee and Wanggaard said he’s confident it will get a hearing.

Wanggaard said if the bill makes it to the floor, he believes it will pass due to its bipartisan support.