(WORT) — Since its release, the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” has drawn international attention to what many see as systemic problems in America’s criminal justice system. Whether one agrees with the documentary’s take on Wisconsin man Steven Avery’s case, the film has people asking questions about wrongful conviction, and how to make it right, that go well beyond his trial.
This week state lawmakers made new headway on legislation that would dramatically increase compensation for people wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Although historically Wisconsin was the first state to offer compensation to exonerees, its compensation standard is currently the lowest in the nation, at $5,000 per year with a maximum of $25,000.
Republican Representative Dale Kooyenga has been a vocal proponent of the legislation. “The problem is, you get out [of prison] and you’re in your late thirties, forties. Some of these guys are in their fifties. They don’t have equity in a home, they’ve never been to school, they have nothing to start with after that $25,000, if they get that,” he says.
Kooyega acknowledges that the bill’s purpose is more modest than providing justice, saying “You can’t provide justice to someone who’s been falsely incarcerated for years or decades. But what we can do is we can give them a little assistance in the interim.”
The bill would increase compensation to $50,000 per year (the median income for Wisconsin families) and cap payments at $1 million for exonerees released since 1990. The bill would also provide health care benefits and job training upon release.
Democratic Representative Gary Hebl is also a strong supporter of the measure, which he says has been around in some form for several legislative sessions. But he credited the new bipartisan momentum in part to Kooyenga’s leadership as vice-chair of assembly and joint finance committees. Hebl hopes to get unanimous consent of the assembly committee in the next few weeks. He says there is consensus that it’s time to “take care of those who’ve been wrongly convicted and try to give them some chance at a real life.”
Despite the strong bipartisan effort, the bill’s supporters don’t necessarily agree on whether wrongful conviction is merely an anomaly, or the result of a criminal justice system in need of more extensive reform.
Representative Hebl says the lack of resources for both prosecutors and public defenders is a major part of the problem, which is systemic. Meanwhile Representative Kooyenga says the system works well except for a “very small group of bad actors,” and that the maturation of DNA testing is reducing wrongful convictions from the outset.
Keith Finley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, praised the compensation bill, calling it “badly needed and long overdue.” But he says human error alone is not enough to account for the wrongful convictions produced by the criminal justice system, citing police interrogation procedures, evidence collection methods, and under-resourced court systems as factors.
He also says the problem is much bigger than imagined a few decades ago, citing a study that puts wrongful conviction rates at 2 to 5%. He notes there are significant barriers to overturning wrongful convictions, especially for those who lack financial resources.
However, Finley says he’s encouraged by the progress state legislators have made in the last fifteen years toward bipartisan criminal justice reforms. He says the latest bill is “another example of those reforms that everyone can look at and say, hey, this is in everyone’s interest.”
Proponents of the wrongful conviction compensation bill hope to have it on Governor Walker’s desk by March. According to Representative Kooyenga, the governor is supportive of the measure.