A task force studying wrongful convictions in Maryland is asking state lawmakers to establish a more streamlined process for compensating and supporting people who have been exonerated, including establishing a standard amount of compensation per year of incarceration.
Members of the the Task Force to Study Erroneous Conviction and Imprisonment, established last year by the General Assembly testified Wednesday in support of Senate Bill 987, sponsored by Sen. Dolores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County.
The bill, which was amended to reflect a consensus reached with the task force’s input, requires the Board of Public Works to compensate an exonerated individual at a rate of $50,000 per year of incarceration or for actual damages sustained, whichever is greater. A person is eligible if they receive a pardon from the governor or the prosecuting attorney certifies the conviction was in error.
Michele Nethercott, director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, told the committee the proposed compensation is in line with what the federal government awards and tracks with the most recent awards by the state, from 2003 and 2004.
“This does not represent a huge departure from what the Board of Public Works was doing when it acted on applications for this,” she said.
But in addition to financial compensation, the bill provides for services and support for a newly released prisoner, from help obtaining identification to housing assistance and medical treatment.
“After suffering such an ordeal, an exonerated person needs immediate social services,” Kelley told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday.
Task force member Walter Lomax, executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, said he hopes the legislature remembered individuals who have “suffered this miscarriage of justice” are human beings. Lomax spent nearly 40 years in prison before being exonerated of a 1968 murder conviction.
“I think that a lot more can be done and should be done,” he said.
Though there was no opposition testimony Wednesday, some members of the task force have expressed concern about the potential cost of the bill, according to a letter written to the Judicial Proceedings Committee by the task force.
Legislative analysts, in a report accompanying the bill, put an undefined price tag on the legislation but said the Board of Public Works would need to hire another staffer to handle the cases.
But Nethercott, in an interview Thursday, said only one or two people currently meet the threshold to apply for compensation and only 17 people statewide who could attempt to start the process and compile necessary documentation.
“I don’t think that realistically there’s going to be a huge fiscal impact,” she said. “The fact remains that very few wrongfully convicted people can surmount the hurdles to even apply to the Board of Public Works.”
The compensation bills come one year after the General Assembly passed legislation to allow an exonerated individual to seek compensation with either a pardon from the governor or a certification from the prosecuting authority that the individual is innocent. The law also currently prohibits an attorney from being paid to assist in the application, something Senate Bill 987 would address.
Nethercott said the bill is a vast improvement over the current process.
“Basically, an exonerated person had to get this pardon either on their own, which is pretty much impossible, or with a lawyer agreeing to do the work for free,” she said.
The bill is cross-filed with House Bill 1225, which will be considered Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. The house bill is sponsored by Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery.