California Improves Compensation Process for Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners
On October 13, 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 618, legislation that streamlines the process for providing financial compensation to people who are wrongfully convicted, exonerated and released from prison. The bill had been introduced by state Senator Mark Leno.
SB 618 updates California Penal Code 4900, enacted in 2000, which provides for $100 for each day of incarceration resulting from a wrongful conviction. The law also required exonerated prisoners to undergo a second, smaller trial by a compensation board to establish their innocence.
SB 618 mandates two important changes. First, when a judge grants a writ of habeas corpus, those findings are binding on the compensation board; second, prisoners who are exonerated and freed no longer have to go through another hearing to prove their innocence before obtaining compensation.
The purpose of modifying the existing law is to provide more expedient relief to wrongfully convicted prisoners like Timothy Atkins.
Convicted at age 17 and incarcerated for 23 years for a murder he did not commit, Atkins was released in February 2007 after the state’s witness admitted being coerced by police to name him as the perpetrator.
Regardless, he was denied compensation in 2010 because the compensation hearing board did not believe he had established his innocence “by a preponderance of the evidence,” even though that same evidence had been used to reverse his conviction and set him free.
From 2000 to 2011, only 11 of 132 wrongfully convicted prisoners in California received financial compensation from the state. Their payments ranged from $17,200 to $756,900.
SB 618 was championed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Innocence Project and the Northern California Innocence Project.
“The goal of the compensation law is to enable wrongfully convicted people to get back on their feet,” said California Innocence Project director Justin Brooks. “The prior compensation process disrespected judicial decisions by giving no deference to them when deciding if a person had been wrongfully convicted. It also allowed for a long and drawn out process. The new law is just, makes sense, and saves both time and money.”
SB 618 streamlines the compensation process by concentrating the compensation board’s attention on claims that require evaluation while allowing automatic approval of claims where a prisoner’s innocence has already been established. Further, it ensures that board rulings on compensation petitions will be based on the same facts and rules of evidence considered by the court that reversed a prisoner’s conviction and granted his or her release.
The law will benefit wrongfully convicted California prisoners like Daniel Larson, who was exonerated on January 27, 2014 after prosecutors dismissed the charges against him following a federal court ruling that found he was actually innocent. Larson had been convicted of possession of a concealed weapon and sentenced to 28 years to life under the state’s three-strikes law. He served 14 years in prison.
Meanwhile, Timothy Atkins has appealed the initial rejection of his compensation claim. “I lost 23 years of my life for something I didn’t do. I didn’t give up while I was in prison. And I am most definitely not going to give up now,” he stated.
Sources: www.utsandiego.com, www.californiainnocenceproject.org, http://law.scu.edu, www.californiawatch.org, www.law.umich.edu
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