By Lucy Salcido Carter
The harms to exonerees from wrongful conviction and incarceration are impossible to quantify: years spent in prison, loss of family, death of relatives, lost educational and career opportunities, and loss of health are just a few. Many of these harms can never be repaired, but state compensation is a vital step in acknowledging and remedying the wrong the state committed and gives exonerees support for rebuilding their lives after their release from prison. California is one of 30 states to have state compensation for exonerees. NCIP has been and continues to be at the forefront of working to make that process better for California exonerees. While progress has been made, there is still much to be done to make sure that exonerees receive the compensation they need in a timely manner to be able to live healthy, productive lives after wrongful conviction.
The Compensation Claims Process
California Penal Code sections 4900-4906, 1485.5, 1485.55, 851.6, and 851.865 govern the exoneree claims process. To start the compensation process, exonerees must present a claim to the Board within two years of their exoneration or release from prison. If the Board finds that the claimant has proven that he is factually innocent (either did not commit the crime or there was no crime), it makes a recommendation to the state legislature to provide compensation.
A compensation claim, once recommended by the Board, is included in an appropriations bill. That appropriations bill must go through the full legislative process of being voted on by committee and on the floor in both the Assembly and Senate. The legislature must pass the bill and the governor must sign it for the claim to get paid from the state’s general fund.
California exonerees whose compensation is approved now receive $140 per day of wrongful incarceration, including jail time, thanks to the 2015 passage of NCIP-sponsored Senate Bill 635 authored by Senators Nielsen and Leno.
NCIP-sponsored Senate Bill 618, authored by Senator Leno and passed in 2013, made it easier for exonerees to get state compensation for their wrongful conviction. While in the past, the Board could – and often did – ignore a court’s finding of or a prosecutor’s stipulation to innocence and conclude that the claimant was not innocent, SB 618 now requires the Board to automatically recommend compensation when an exoneree has a court finding or prosecutor’s stipulation of factual innocence. Now, even when a conviction is reversed based on a claim other than innocence, such as the ineffective assistance of counsel or false testimony, an exoneree can ask the court for a finding of factual innocence for the purposes of compensation. NCIP helped recent exoneree Larry Pohlschneider do just that; and with his court finding of innocence, the Board recommended compensation.
These changes have helped streamline the process, but the many steps between the reversal of a conviction and the issuance of a check, even when innocence has been found by a court, continue to create an unsure and unclear process for which exonerees need legal counsel.
Compensation Board Restructures
Beginning July 1, 2016, the Board narrowed its mandate and changed its name from California’s Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board to the California Victim Compensation Board. It will now only make recommendations on crime victim and exoneree compensation claims and will assume greater oversight of California’s crime victim programs, based on a recommendation made in a 2015 Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) report.
The Board currently consists of three voting members: the Secretary of the Government Operations Agency, the State Controller, and a public member appointed by the governor. The LAO report recommended that members be added to increase the Board’s expertise in crime victim issues but did not address adding expertise in exoneree issues.
Assembly Bill 1802, authored by Assemblyman Chavez, addresses the LAO recommendation and proposes adding two new Board members with crime victim expertise. NCIP is working closely with Chavez’s staff to amend the bill to also include exoneree expertise. The bill is currently being reviewed by Senate Appropriations Committee consultants.
NCIP believes that adding exoneree expertise to the Board is a good next step in improving the exoneree compensation process. NCIP, in partnership with the other California-based innocence organizations and the ACLU, is also planning additional reforms so that more exonerees get compensation more quickly.