Monday, February 25, 2008

Un Bell Nulla (A Beautiful Nothing)

As we noted last week, Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R), who represents an overlapping portion of both Broward and Palm Beach Counties, filed HB 1025, The Victims of Wrongful Compensation Act.

When I started reading the bill, I started to get a bit giddy because of the comprehensive nature of the services provided by this plan.
HB 1025 goes further than the previous bills to offer a standard amount of money ($50,000) per year of wrongful incarceration, 120 hours of tuition at a state college or university, a process for expunging of criminal records as it relates to the wrongful conviction, and reimbursements for psychological services and health insurance premiums. It is far more extensive than previous attempts since 2005 which limited exoneree compensation to a standard amount of money ($50,000) per year of wrongful incarceration, 120 hours of tuition at a state college or university, and a formal apology (although SB 756, filed this year by Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D) and which is principally support by the Innocence Project of Florida, includes payment of $100,000 for every year of wrongful incarceration).

My giddiness turned to exasperation when I read the rest of the HB 1025. It became clear that while this bill would provide much, none of the array of services available could be obtained by any of Florida's nine DNA exonerees, because they are all excluded under the plain language of the bill.

You read that right: The House Republican leadership has put forward a compensation bill that would not compensate any known Florida DNA exonerees!

So how does it exclude these deserving individuals? The principle exclusion in the bill is a so-called "clean hands" provision, which excludes from compensation anyone with a felony conviction prior to their wrongful conviction. This is their reasoning:

Republican leaders in both chambers say they want the bill to prevent released prisoners with prior felony convictions from being entitled to the automatic compensation. That means people like Crotzer, who was previously convicted in 1981 for stealing a case of beer, wouldn't qualify for automatic compensation under the proposed legislation and would still have to petition the Legislature.

"There doesn't appear to be a huge appetite from the public to give money to folks who have a rap sheet," Bogdanoff said. "It's not going to help everybody, but it's geared toward those people whom the public is most offended by government's wrongful action."

Yet, they go on to say that they are going to compensate Al Crotzer through a separate vehicle, despite his previous felony for stealing beer from a store. Al is totally deserving and has put in the hard work to win over legislators. But their protests about not wanting to pay people with a rap sheet ring hollow when they are willing to pay those with a rap sheet who they get to know and deem to be a "good" person. Let us not forget that it was only a year ago that two committees in the Senate and one committee in the House were not concerned about clean hands when they voted unanimously to pass a similar bill with no clean hands provision at all. I guess they were for a fair and equal method for compensating exonerees before they were against it. (Note: In response to the concerns about paying multi-time felons who later get wrongfully convicted for a separate offense, IPF took the initiative and crafted the narrower clean hands provision that exists in SB 756).

Nevermind the fact that in 75% of cases nationwide where DNA later proved innocence, a witness misidentification contributed to the wrongful conviction. You can probably guess how law enforcement had those individuals' pictures or knew their identities to stick them in a live lineup to be misidentified; because they had a previous conviction.

What is most pernicious about this provision is that it implies that exonerees, who have spent decades in prison for someone else's crime and have fought like hell in horrible conditions to prove their innocence when no one would listen, are somehow at fault for their wrongful conviction and incarceration. This clean hands provision is nothing more than a good old fashion immunity clause. It allows the State of Florida to wrongfully convict people with impunity; with virtually no consequences for its actions.

Even worse is the fact that the stated purpose of the bill is:

House and Senate leaders agree they want . . . an automatic process that would make it easier for those who have been wrongly convicted to collect some compensation, without petitioning the Legislature year after year.

This sounds like a great idea, but how does creating a uniform, automatic system that pays no one fulfill this stated purpose? How does it meet the stated end if we simply kick everyone back over to the annual claims bill process, which lacks in uniformity or fairness among exonerees and which favors those who can obtain good counsel? These are questions that the proponents of this clean hands provision should be made to answer.

The struggle for an exoneree compensation bill is in its fourth year. The legislature knows it has to pass something this year in light of its failure to pay Al Crotzer two years running on the backdrop of the speed in which it paid Wilton Dedge in 2005. But instead of showing leadership in crafting a bill that demonstrates fairness and compassion for all exonerees and responsibility for wrongful convictions, all we get is a cynical attempt to gain the political capital that comes along with passing a compensation bill while merely creating an illusory scheme that pays no one.

Call it the height of cynicism or smoke and mirrors or even bait and switch. Whatever you call it, it is a disappointment and a failure on the part of the State of Florida. It is our hope that when the Senate files their bill this week, it will be substantially better and that the leadership of both houses will be a willing partner with the Innocence Project of Florida to do better for Florida's exonerees.

1 comment:

justamere woman said...

You can't use previous conviction information when trying someone because it doesn't pertain to the case at hand, but you can site that it is relevant when it's time to pay up??? Ludicrous! It takes more than a $9.50/hr job to "Get on with life!"

Keep up the good and necessary work IPF