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New bill would give services, compensation to wrongfully convicted Minnesotans

Mike Mullen//January 28, 2014

New bill would give services, compensation to wrongfully convicted Minnesotans

Mike Mullen//January 28, 2014

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said Minnesota is among the minority of states without a compensation statute. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher.)
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said Minnesota is among the minority of states without a compensation statute. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher.)

A new proposal from two Democratic committee chairmen could change the way Minnesota treats innocent people who do time in prison. Under a bill from Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, wrongfully imprisoned people would be eligible for services normally reserved for released convicts, and could file for monetary compensation as payback for their years spent behind bars. The DFL lawmakers announced their plan in a Tuesday afternoon press conference, and said passing the law would simply bring Minnesota in line with the majority of court systems in America.

Similar compensation programs already exist in 29 other states, as well as Washington, D.C., and the federal justice system also allows the innocent to appeal for direct compensation.

“That puts Minnesota in the minority of states that do not help the wrongfully imprisoned,” said Latz,who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Latz made it clear that he is “very proud” of Minnesota’s courts and criminal justice system, but said adding the compensation provision was a necessary step to remedy mistakes that are inevitable.

Only two Minnesotans have been proven innocent and subsequently released from prison during the last five years, and both were on hand for Tuesday’s press conference. Michael Hansen was incarcerated for six years following a murder conviction in the death of his three-year-old daughter, after a medical examiner wrongly blamed her fatal head injuries on Hansen rather than an accidental fall. The other prisoner’s release made national news: Koua Fong Lee was convicted of vehicular manslaughter in 2007, but set free two years later after Toyota acknowledged that some of its Camry models had issues with sudden, uncontrolled acceleration.

Lesch, who works as a criminal prosecutor and chairs the  House Civil Law Committee, said police and prosecutors go to “extraordinary” lengths to avoid sending an innocent person to prison, but cannot prevent the occasional error.

“It’s the job of everyone in the system to catch that, and sometimes it does not happen,” Lesch said.

He argued that, because the state provides rehabilitation and reintroduction services for recently released inmates, those who were truly guilty might stand a better chance at succeeding upon their release than someone whose conviction was nullified. If the proposal is approved, innocent former prisoners would get access to the same services currently offered to others released from incarceration, including medical and dental care, career counseling and financial support for necessities.

In addition, the innocent could pursue compensation in an Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) process, where a judge could determine that he or she should receive financial reparations. Judges would award money working from a base payment of $50,000 per year of incarceration, and could factor in an inmate’s earning potential to increase that amount; financial payouts would be capped at $700,000 under the terms of the bill.

The legislation was crafted with the help of Julie Jonas, an attorney with the Minnesota chapter of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal outfit that was involved in both Hansen’s and Lee’s legal appeals. Explaining some of the details during Tuesday’s press conference, Jonas said the bill would not apply to convicts who are released on a “legal technicality,” and only those who have proven their innocence could receive services or recompense.

“The bar for that is very, very high,” Jonas said.

Jonas added that the dollar figures available should only be granted at fair amounts, given how much income a person might have missed during their prison sentence.

“This isn’t about trying to get someone rich,” she said.

Latz announced his and Lesch’s intentions to pass the bill during the coming legislative session, which begins Feb. 25, and said he thinks the issue should pass with bipartisan support. Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, expressed some hesitation in supporting the Democrats’ idea.

Limmer, who serves as GOP lead on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was not familiar with the details of the bill, but said his initial reaction would be to wonder how the state could prepare and budget for unforeseen events like the overturning of a criminal conviction.

“It would be almost impossible to get a fiscal note on a bill like this,” Limmer said.

Though he is sympathetic to the plight of wrongly convicted people, Limmer also questioned the base compensation of $50,000 per year, arguing that this salary amount is relatively difficult for most college educated workers to attain in the current economy. Limmer also said people who have been proven innocent already have the means to pursue compensation by suing the state in civil court.

“I think the idea has merit,” Limmer said. “I think one needs to kind of question where the numbers came from, and how expensive it would be at a time when we need every resource dollar.”

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