Florida Gov. Rick Scott has signed into law a bill that relaxes the criteria for compensating those wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. It was a compassionate move on his part, and the right move, too.
The measure modifies a provision to the Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Act that allowed, in many cases, the state to largely wipe its hands clean of financial responsibility for wrongfully prosecuting.
In the past, if an exoneree had another, unrelated felony conviction on his criminal record — the state was off the hook from having to pay for restitution for the wrongful incarceration. Only a handful of people unjustly convicted have received automatic compensation.
The new law eases the unfair, so-called “Clean Hands” provision and will allow more wrongly convicted Floridians to seek compensation from the state — as they are constitutionally entitled to do.
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In 2008, the Florida Legislature passed the act that entitled anyone unjustly imprisoned to receive $50,000 for each year detained.
Back then, supporters hailed it as a historic move toward justice. But the law came with the loaded provision, which led to unintended consequences, not to mention affecting most unfairly African Americans and Hispanics, who disproportionately have a higher chance of being rounded up, arrested, charged and convicted than whites. And former felons are at the highest risk of being convicted of crimes of which they are innocent.
Largely because of the “Clean Hands” provision, just a small number of inmates cleared by DNA evidence in Florida were able to qualify for compensation. For the others, the only recourse to get financial restitution was filing lawsuits or seeking payment through legislative bills.
Now, the new “Clean Hands” provision only prohibits those wrongfully incarcerated from receiving state compensation if they have been convicted of a violent felony or more than one nonviolent felony. We think that wrongly convicted is wrongly convicted, and that unrelated crimes should not play a role here, but the law is a step toward justice.
Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, succeeded in shepherding House Bill 393/Senate Bill 494 to the governor’s desk.
As he lobbied for the legislation, DuBose said the bill is for people like William Dillon, who after 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit could not seek compensation because he had a past conviction for possessing a Quaalude. “If you take someone away from their family for 26 years, you’re altering generations,” DuBose recently said at a public event. We agree.
Any Floridians asking why they have to foot the bill for more of these restitution claims need to ask themselves: When is imprisoning an innocent person the right thing to do? There’s only one answer: Never. This is a state that has seen the most exonerations of the wrongly convicted. They were sent up by aggressive, sloppy, and even devious prosecutors looking for a win. And prosecutors were working on behalf of all Floridians. Derelict private businesses compensate aggrieved consumers. The state should be no different.
Until last week, Florida was the only one of the 30 states with exoneration compensation laws that had such a punishing clause.
Anyone who respects the Constitution understands that one of the most egregious abuses by any government is unjust incarceration. We’re glad the governor understands that.