A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is moving to dramatically restructure compensation rules for people wrongly convicted in Wisconsin, introducing a bill Thursday that would raise the maximum payout from $25,000 to $1 million and remove exonerees’ cases from the state’s public court database.
Wisconsin currently offers the wrongly convicted $5,000 for every year of incarceration, up to $25,000. Under the bill, exonerees could collect $50,000 for every year behind bars with the total payout capped at $1 million with adjustments for inflation every five years. They also could participate in the state’s health insurance program for up to a decade at their own expense and would get access to transitional services, such as job training and housing.
“Wisconsin’s current $25,000 compensation limit is woefully low,” Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said in a news release. “Wrongfully convicted persons are deprived of years of their lives – the loss of an opportunity to start a family, establish themselves in their community and find job security.”
Keith Findley, director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which works to free the wrongly convicted, said the bill is long overdue. Wisconsin’s $5,000 per-year payout is the lowest among the 30 states that provide some form of compensation by law, he said.
“This is an important, important change in Wisconsin law,” Findley said. “It’s well beyond time we address the problem and fix this. The experience (of being wrongly incarcerated) is horribly damaging.”
The bill would make anyone wrongfully convicted since Jan. 1, 1990, eligible for compensation. The bill’s authors believe about 40 people fall within that window.
Exonerees would have to obtain a clear declaration of innocence from the state Division of Hearings and Appeals; often, judges overturn convictions without clearly stating that. Once they get the declaration, the state claims board would have to release the money. If an exoneree wins money in a civil lawsuit, he or she would have to repay the state equal to the settlement.
The bill also contains a clause that would require judges to expunge an exoneree’s records from Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, the state’s publicly accessible online database of court records.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said his group would oppose that mandate. He said it’s pointless to close the records since wrongful convictions are typically highly publicized.
“You can take whatever you want off (the records website), but a Google search will still show who these people are,” he said.
Wrongfully convicted people shouldn’t be haunted by inaccurate records open to the world, said Rep. Gary Hebl, a Sun Prairie Democrat who co-wrote the bill.
“Once they’re exonerated they should get as clean a slate as possible,” he said.
The authors make up a rare bipartisan coalition but the proposal’s fate is unclear. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he’s reviewing the bill and is open to it. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Fitzgerald, said Senate Republicans may discuss the measure next week.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said in an email that Walker “will work with members of the Legislature to ensure those who are wrongly convicted are compensated justly.” She didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up message asking if that means the governor supports the bill.
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