Georgia House clears bill standardizing pay for wrongfully convicted

3/7/19 - Atlanta  - Scott Holcomb, representative of district 81, is congratulated after HB 282 passes at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday, March 7, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Credit: Emily Haney

Credit: Emily Haney

3/7/19 - Atlanta - Scott Holcomb, representative of district 81, is congratulated after HB 282 passes at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday, March 7, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Members of the Georgia House voted overwhelmingly late Tuesday to standardize the way the state compensates people who have been convicted and jailed for crimes they didn’t commit.

HB 1354, passed by a bipartisan 157 to 11 margin, would require the state to pay exonerees $50,000 to $100,000 per year spent behind bars. It would also create a panel of appointees, all subject matter experts in wrongful convictions or criminal justice, to vet compensation claims while laying out clear guidelines for who does and does not qualify.

“No piece of legislation can give back the years taken from people who have suffered the tragic consequences of imprisonment for a crime they did not commit,” said Clare Gilbert, executive director of Georgia Innocence Project, who added that “this bill does provide some financial security for exonerees to rebuild their lives in freedom.”

Proponents say the legislation brings Georgia in line with more than three dozen other U.S. states and the federal government, which have standard procedures in place for the wrongfully convicted, who often struggle to pay bills and with health problems.

Under Georgia’s current process, exonerees must lobby the General Assembly for a private resolution to receive compensation, a process that often gets bogged down by politics. They must also present their case to an advisory board under the Secretary of State’s office that’s designed to process smaller claims from people harmed by state agencies. Advocates for the wrongfully convicted say that the board was never intended to hear claims from people who were grossly mishandled by the criminal justice system — indeed, the body has never recommended payment for an exoneree.

“When exonerees come out of prison, they often have nothing. No job. No home. No reentry services to help them. I believe the vast majority of Georgia taxpayers would see this as an important issue of justice,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, the bill’s lead sponsor.

Separately, the House on Tuesday passed individual compensation packages for Dennis Perry and Kerry Robinson, who respectively spent 20 and 18 years in Georgia prisons for crimes that DNA evidence later proved they didn’t commit.

Earlier, lawmakers shelved a compensation for a third exoneree, Ashley Jordan, who was 12 years into a life sentence when the Georgia Supreme Court overturned her conviction last year.

The measures compensating Perry and Robinson, and well as the broader overhaul, now await passage in the Senate.

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