Proposed legislation is circulating through the Wisconsin legislature that would significantly increase compensation for those who are exonerated after being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Here at Nicholson & Gansner, all we can say is: “It’s about time!”
The Current Compensation System
Currently, Wisconsin law compensates those who have been wrongfully convicted according to the following formula:
- $5000 for every year of incarceration he or she served
- With the total amount capped at $25,000
This provides Wisconsin with the dubious distinction of being the cheapest state in the nation when it comes to providing statutory compensating for those who have been wronged by its justice system, placing us behind such bastions of progressiveness as Louisiana and Mississippi, which provide between 6 and 20 times the compensation that Wisconsin does to those wrongfully convicted. Robert Lee Stinson, a man who spent 23 years of his life incarcerated for a crime he did not commit is a prime example. To suggest that $25,000 somehow compensates him for that time simply adds one more insult to a grievous injury.
A Long & Arduous Process
Making the situation worse, the process to receive this compensate is long and arduous. Even after an individual establishes through the court system that he or she was wrongfully convicted, to receive compensation that individual must then complete a separate process through the State Claims Board, establishing that they were factually innocent and did not contribute in any manner to heir wrongful conviction. All of this occurs during a time when that newly freed individual is attempting to re-enter a society from which he or she was wrongfully removed, without the benefit of reentry services that are provided to those who actually do commit crimes.
What the New Legislation would Do
The newly proposed legislation would seek to fix many of these problems in several ways, including:
- Increasing the potential amount of compensation to those who spent time in prison for crimes they did not commit
- Streamlining the process used to receive this compensation
- Providing services to exonerated individuals to help them reintegrate into society
When you stop to consider what this legislation is really about–righting wrongs and seeking justice–there just isn’t a persuasive argument against it. While it might require a small increase in the budget, the amount is likely to be negligible given the few people who actually qualify for this type of compensation. But whatever the costs, should these changes not be ratified the price paid to the integrity of our justice system will be far greater. As noted by attorney Byron Lichstein of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, this is not a partisan issue; it is simply a matter of human compassion and common decency. If we seek a system of justice of which we can be proud, then we need to acknowledge and try to right the situations in which it fails, rather than run from them. This proposed legislation does just that, which is why we support it. We hope that Wisconsin’s elected representatives share our belief in fundamental fairness, and ratify these bills into law.