SB 618 means exonerees can get compensated more easily than ever before

            California took a brave step forward this weekend after Governor Jerry Brown signed into law California Senate Bill 618, which provides much-needed changes to its crippled compensation process for the wrongfully convicted.  SB 618 is designed to make the process more streamlined, more efficient, and much cheaper for every Californian, while still providing meaningful relief to individuals who have been found innocent and set free.

            Over a decade ago, California’s legislature unanimously agreed to address a growing problem in its criminal justice system: what should be done to help those who have been wrongfully convicted?  With the advent and use of new forensic technologies like DNA, and the creation of postconviction organizations like the California Innocence Project, more and more people were getting set free after being found innocent of the crimes for which they were sent to prison.  These individuals, some of which had spent decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, were victims of the criminal justice system through no fault of their own.  California was among the first of dozens of states to pass a series of laws designed to try to repair the damage done to these innocent individuals, to compensate them for their years of wrongful conviction.  California Penal Code section 4900, passed in 2000, provided compensation to an individual who could show he or she had been wrongfully convicted.

            The compensation was not much—$100 a day, or $36,500 a year for every year that you served behind bars for a crime you didn’t commit.  But it was genuinely necessary for wrongly convicted and released inmates.  Perversely, exonerees are actually worse off than people who are on parole—people who actually committed their crimes, did their time, and are released to the community.  Parolees have access to reintegration programs like halfway houses; there are hundreds of state-funded jobs programs specifically designed to allow parolees to get work and provide for themselves.  Being wrongfully convicted, however, means you are not eligible for parole programs—since you are not on parole.

            The compensation statute was designed to provide some genuine relief to people like Timothy Atkins, who served 23 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit.  He was released only after the prosecution’s star witness admitted she had been pressured by police into naming Atkins as the perpetrator.  Atkins went to prison when he was 17; he got out when he was 40 years old.  Having spent the majority of his life in prison, he did not have many of the advantages we take for granted.  He had never owned a cell phone or a credit card; he had never had a bank account or used the internet.  He needed help to get back on his feet.  He was precisely the type of person for whom the compensation statute was drafted.

            Sadly, however, the compensation board voted to deny Atkins compensation.  It found that, although his conviction had been reversed based on a finding of innocence, the board did not believe it was likely he had been wrongfully convicted.  The board considered Atkins’s case to be a “typical gang case,” and that Atkins or his family had most likely threatened the witness into recanting.  Despite any evidence of this, and despite a state judge’s reversal of his conviction, the board was unanimous in denying his claim.

            Atkins’s ordeal is, sadly, far from unique.  Although the compensation process had universal support when it passed, over the years the process became increasingly byzantine and difficult.  Each year meant fewer individuals got compensated than the last, even while more and more people were getting released from prison.  An investigation into California’s compensation process found that, as of 2011, only eleven of the 132 claims for compensation had been granted by the board.  To make matters worse, the process—supposedly designed to quickly get individuals compensation so they could move on with their lives—often took years to resolve.

            Enter SB 618.  Through a series of small changes to the law, the compensation process has been modified to—hopefully—fulfill the promise made to the wrongly convicted more than a decade ago.  The compensation now becomes:

∙           More efficient, accelerating the procedure for resolving claims to provide meaningful, speedy relief to innocent individuals trying to get back on their feet;

∙           Less expensive, saving taxpayer money spent on years of costly litigation where innocence has already been proven, and saving exonerees countless hours retrying their case when the conviction has been overturned and their release granted by a court;

∙           More streamlined, focusing the board’s work on those claims which are actually in need of evaluation, and allowing automatic approval of claims where innocence has already been proven; and

∙           More consistent, ensuring the board’s determinations to grant or deny compensation claims are based on the same facts and rules of evidence  established by the court that reversed the conviction, found them innocent, and granted their release.

            These reforms are spectacular, and a tremendous step in the right direction.  For Californians interested in criminal justice reform, you can hold your head up high today.

Written by Alex Simpson, Associate Director of the California Innocence Project.  Alex can be reached by email: ajs@cwsl.edu.