Jail cell

Photo of a hallway of the Dane County Public Safety building.

MADISON — In terms of payment to someone who has been wrongfully convicted of a crime, Wisconsin might be one of the worst states in the nation at providing compensation. Senate Bill 456 could change that.

Currently, if a person is wrongfully convicted of a crime, the state pays $5,000 per year incarcerated with a cap at $25,000. Also, those who are wrongly convicted are not eligible for reintegration services that help with job hunting, housing and other services and that are provided to criminals newly released from prison.

State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, is one of the main sponsors of the legislation and representatives from both parties have signed on as co-sponsors.

“So $5,000 for a year of your life being locked away in a cell or $25,000 for five years of your life — $25,000, that’s not even a low-wage job for a year,” Wanggaard said. “You can’t get (the time) back.”

In SB 456, those wrongfully convicted of a crime would be compensated $50,000 per year incarcerated with a $1 million cap, reintegration services would be provided and their record would be sealed.

Wanggaard said asking for $50,000 per year is “middle of the road” compared to other states.

As a former law enforcement officer, Wanggaard said he understands that mistakes can be made in the justice system that can cause an innocent person to be convicted.

“You work to get all the information you can to prove that this is the individual who did (the crime), but we’ve had times where they got the wrong person and DNA saved them,” Wanggaard said. “All of a sudden we found out through DNA that a person spent 20 years of their life locked up, how do you get that back? You can’t get that back.”

The bill was referred to the Joint Finance Committee and Wanggaard said he’s confident it will get a hearing.

“If it makes it to the floor, I do believe it will pass because it has bipartisan support,” Wanggaard said, adding it would only affect a few people. “Thank goodness we don’t have a whole list of individuals that would be in line to receive (compensation). We do a pretty good job here in Wisconsin of not locking up people for the wrong reasons.”

‘Worst in the country’

Cristina Borde, supervising attorney for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which operates out of the University of Wisconsin Law School, said the state’s compensation for wrongful convictions is “the worst in the country.”

“For those very few who get there, who have their conviction overturned, we want to make sure we give them some kind of compensation to give them a chance,” Borde said.

Borde said the federal government provides $50,000 per year for those who were sitting on death row.

“That’s where we got that number,” Borde said. “A number of different states provide that, it’s sort of the standard amount per year of wrongful incarceration and our statute has not been updated in many years.”

Borde along with other members of the Wisconsin Innocence Project and some wrongfully incarcerated testified in front of legislators about how it could help those who have been wronged.

“It’s very difficult to have someone exonerated and it’s very difficult for them to get compensation,” Borde said. “Many people think that once they get exonerated they are able to sue and get thousands and thousands of dollars. That really does not happen very frequently at all.”

Borde said having transition services included in the bill could really help those who are just getting out of prison.

“When they’ve been incarcerated for so long, rightfully or wrongfully, it takes time to adjust,” Borde said. “Many of our exonerees have a very, very difficult time, not only financially but re-establishing (relationships) … their whole social network has broken down.”

Help with employment

Besides losing time with family and friends, Borde said, those wrongfully convicted also lose time to grow their work history or advance in a career.

“If you’re incarcerated at the age of 20, and then you spend 20 years in prison, you lost some of the most productive years of your life,” Borde said. “The ones where you develop work skills, establish relationships with other people in the work community so you’re known … it’s very hard to get a job again.”

Borde said some employers might be hesitant to hire someone who has been in prison, despite their record officially showing “conviction has been vacated.”

“There’s no mark to say this person has been found innocent or this person is exonerated, the legal system doesn’t have such a label,” Borde said. “It becomes very, very difficult for our exonerees to find a job because of that ... (this bill) allows people to have a chance to get a job.”

According to the Wisconsin Innocence Project website, that office has helped 30 individuals get exonerated since it began operations in the 1990s.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Administration, Division of Executive Budget and Finance, since 1960, 57 individuals have applied to the State Claims Board for compensation for being wrongfully imprisoned, “of these 57 individuals, 19 received compensation.”

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Ricardo Torres covers federal, state and Racine County politics along with the Village of Mount Pleasant. He bleeds Wisconsin sports teams.

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