Kansas lawmakers weighed a proposal Monday to enable people who are wrongfully convicted to seek compensation after they are released from prison.
HB 2611, which was reviewed by the House Judiciary Committe, was drafted in response to the wrongful conviction of Floyd Bledsoe.
Bledsoe, an Oskaloosa native, spent 16 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of his sister-in-law’s rape and murder. DNA evidence and a suicide note confession from his brother led to his release in December.
Rep. Ramon Gonzalez, R-Perry, served as a special investigator on the case when it was reopened last year, helping lead to Bledsoe’s release.
Thirty states, the District of Columbia and the federal government offer compensation for people wrongfully convicted under their jurisdiction, but Kansas does not. Gonzalez said that when Bledsoe left prison he “walked out with a set of clothes and that’s it.”
Bledsoe didn’t even receive the $100 that prisoners, who are guilty, receive when they are released from prison after they serve out their sentences. He also does not have the access to the same post-release services that other prisoners would have for help with finding employment.
Gonzalez’ bill would pay a person the equivalent minimum wage for each year he or she spent in prison for a wrongful conviction – a total of about $15,000 for every year spent behind bars. They could seek it through a civil action in court.
Bledsoe thanked Gonzalez for the bill, but he asked lawmakers to not reduce the issue of compensation to a simple monetary formula.
“Picture, if you will, laying on a bunk day in and day out, being able to see the outside world and not being able to do anything,” he said. “This last 16 years have robbed me of my life. But the most it robbed me of was my children. I lost everything. I lost my inheritance, 40 acres. I lost my job. I lost relationships. All because of lies. … It’s more than a 40-hour workweek.”
Bledsoe suggested amending the bill to enable people who are wrongfully convicted to have free tuition to the state’s universities and to providing more support for exonerated people when they’re released for prison.
“For the guilty people that serve out their prison term they have mentors, they have everything, but for a person that’s exonerated it’s ‘We’re happy for you, but there’s nothing we can do,’” he said.
He talked about the difficulty of finding employment after being out of the workforce for 16 years or getting a car loan or place to rent without a credit history.
“It’s stuff that we take for granted. I have no social security. I have no retirement fund. I’m 39 years old. Most people who are 39 years old have some sort of retirement fund. I don’t,” he said.
Bledsoe is one of seven people known to have been wrongfully convicted. Tricia Bushnell, legal director for the Midwest Innocence Project, said the question of compensation is not just a financial one but a moral one.
“We’re not just talking about lost income,” she said. “We’re talking about redress for lost life.”
Bushnell encouraged lawmakers to raise the compensation level in the bill to be more in line with the federal level of compensation, which currently stands at $63,000 for each year.
Texas compensates a person for $80,000 a year and also provides an annuity, according Bushnell.
She said that Colorado recent passed a law that compensates a person with $70,000 for each year and just last week the Wisconsin State Assembly voted unanimously to raise its compensation level to $50,000 per year.
Jennifer Roth, spokeswoman for the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, suggested that lawmakers amend the bill to compensate people who plead guilty before going to trial despite their innocence. The bill’s current language would exclude them.
Roth said innocent people sometimes take plea bargains out of fear of receiving stiffer sentences and noted that 97 percent of the state’s felony convictions result from pleas as opposed to trial.
Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, the committee’s chair, noted that the bill’s current wording requires “clear and convincing evidence” for a wrongfully convicted person to recover damages, which is a higher bar than most civil cases which simply require a “preponderance of evidence.”
Gonzalez said he was open to amending the bill to address these concerns.