Georgia’s ‘all over the board’ in compensating the wrongfully convicted

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What’s the value of a life when you’ve been forced to spend 20 years or more in prison for a crime you didn’t commit?

A House study committee is trying to come up with a formula or standard that would determine how much compensation the state should pay to wrongfully convicted people in those kinds of circumstances.

At its first meeting Wednesday, the committee received a briefing from legislative counsel Jill Travis about the amounts the General Assembly has approved over the years to compensate people who were sent to prison but were later freed after being exonerated of the crime, usually by DNA evidence.

The most recent award was $400,000 to a man who spent 11 years and nine months in prison before being released.

Earlier awards included $500,000 for 15 years in prison, $1 million for 17 years, $1.2 million for 23 years, $1.2 million for 21 years, and $500,000 for 22 years behind bars.

“We’re kind of all over the board,” observed Rep. B. J. Pak (R-Lilburn), an attorney.  “I wonder if we could figure out how much per day, per month, to compensate somebody for the hardship they have suffered.”

“There seems to be no set response,” said Rep. Stephen Allison (R-Blairsville). “Just like a civil action lawsuit, they ask for what they ask for, and the General Assembly in its wisdom sets what will be paid.”

“That’s why we’re all here, because of the inconsistency,” said Rep. Carolyn Hugley (D-Columbus), who’s chairing the study committee. “We do need some kind of standard to go by, so our personal feelings won’t get caught up in this.”

Hugley was the prime sponsor of a bill passed last year authorizing payment of $400,000 to Lathan Word, who was exonerated after being imprisoned 11 years and nine months for a 1999 armed robbery.

Word had been arrested and charged with the crime when he was 18 years old, shortly before he was scheduled to start basic training for the U.S. Marine Corps.  In setting the amount of compensation, lawmakers calculated the amount of money Ward would have earned if he had served in the Marines as he originally planned.

The process of getting compensation from the state is a complicated and arduous one, which is why only a handful of men have been awarded that money over the past 20 years.

A state board chaired by the governor hears the initial petition for compensation, then forwards its recommendation to the General Assembly.  A bill must be passed by the Legislature and signed into law before the compensation can be paid.

The money is usually paid as a lump sum or in the form of an annuity to the wrongfully convicted person.

That changed in 2009, however, in a resolution that authorized payment of $500,000 to John Jerome White for spending 22 years in prison on a rape conviction for which he was later exonerated.

The Georgia Senate added a punitive amendment that said White “shall be subject to periodic, unannounced drug testing, and all payments shall cease if any such test indicates the presence of any illegal drugs. No payment shall be made during any period during which Mr. White is not employed, self-employed, performing voluntary work for a charitable organization, or seeking employment.”

“We were told the bill would not pass in the Senate if we did not agree to those conditions,” said Hugley, who sponsored the compensation measure for White.

The Department of Administrative Services (DOAS), which normally handles state purchasing and risk management, was required by the compensation resolution to make sure the conditions in the legislation were met, but DOAS legal counsel Rebecca Sullivan acknowledged that the agency never conducted any drug tests.

“We do not have any kind of drug testing program,” Sullivan said.  “That does not fall within our current statutory responsibilities.”

Attempts have been made over the past decade to standardize the compensation paid to wrongfully convicted individuals.  Hugley and former House member Stephanie Stuckey Benfield tried several times to get bills passed for this purpose, but could never get enough support for them.

© 2014 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: B.J. Pak , Carolyn Hugley , DOAS , Rebecca Sullivan , Stephen Allison , wrongful incarceration