Governor Rick Scott has signed a bill into law that’s meant to be an update to the Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Act. The aim is to help exonerees have an easier time receiving compensation for a wrongful conviction. It’s because over the past decade, few have been compensated due to a provision that blocks those with a prior felony record.
More than a decade ago, Alan Crotzer finally heard the words he’d been waiting to hear from a judge after a long imprisonment: he was a free man.
“I was overwhelmed for someone to have so much power over my life,” said Crotzer, in the above video. “You know, after 24 years, 6 months, 13 days, and four hours of wrongful conviction and was basically raised in the Florida penitentiary system from the age of 20 to 45, and for him to say that, and for it to be tangible and real, was almost not real to me.”
Before he was exonerated using DNA evidence in 2006, Crotzer served nearly 25 years in prison for a 1981 rape, kidnapping, and robbery he did not do.
In order to receive the $1.25 million he later got via the legislature in 2008, he had to go through what’s called a claims bill—a process which can often take many years before compensation is awarded.
But, his ordeal inspired a measure to create a process in which exonerees could receive compensation through a petition.
So, in 2007, Arthenia Joyner—a state Senator at the time—filed the “Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Act.” It passed the Florida legislature in 2008, and was signed into law.
“Florida is among 30 states that have a statute to compensate wrongfully incarcerated individuals, while other states use a claims bill process,” she said, back in 2015. “But, of the 30 states with a similar statute, Florida is the only one with a Clean Hands provision.”
The caveat in the law is that “Clean Hands” provision. Even if a person is exonerated for a crime they didn’t commit, compensation is still not available to those with a previous felony record.
Under that law, only four people have received money out of Florida’s more than 20 exonerees who were on death row, alone. That number doesn’t include those who were wrongfully convicted for other crimes.
Joyner tried for several years to change that by filing bills to allow more people to get compensated.
“It is time we address this inequitable situation,” she added, at the time. “This bill does not eliminate the Clean Hands provision. Under this bill, a wrongfully incarcerated person is prohibited from receiving compensation if they committed a prior violent felony, while they were in prison, or if they committed a prior violent felony while they were on parole or community supervision.”
But, every session she sponsored it, Joyner’s bill either died in the committee process or the House didn’t pass the measure. Because Joyner termed out of the Legislature last year, she passed the baton to her prime co-sponsor Fleming Island Republican Senator Rob Bradley.
Not only did he file the bill again, he—at one point—changed the measure to do away with the Clean Hands provision altogether. It was due to hearing testimony from a death row exoneree who still hasn’t received compensation.
“You know, upon reflection, I think the right policy is to completely do away—like the other 32 states—with the Clean Hands provision,” stated Bradley, at the time. “And, that’s where I stand at this point in time.”
But, the House didn’t accept that change. So, due to a compromise with the House, Bradley changed the Senate measure back to precluding only those who have a past violent felony conviction—like robbery, kidnapping, and sexual battery—from being compensated.
Now, Bradley says that’s way more progress than when the bill fared in previous sessions.
And, he adds the underlying goal is the same.
“If the Government exercises its most extreme in power—which is incarcerating you against your will and putting you in prison, a place you don’t want to be—then they need to make sure that they have evidence beyond reasonable doubt to put you there,” he said. “And, if it’s later proven that they did not have that evidence, that is as egregious of a violation of someone’s civil rights as exists in our free society. So, it’s important that we have a Wrongful Incarceration statute that is real and that gives real compensation to people who find themselves incarcerated for crimes they did not do.”
He says he’s really happy to get this done.
“So, that was a bill that I’m really pleased that we were able to get across the finish line,” Bradley added. “It’s something I worked on with Arthenia Joyner, who’s one of my personal heroes in life. She struggled in the civil rights movement in her younger days, and somebody that I grew very close to and fond of on a very personal level. So, to finish that this year was a real tribute to her.”
Still, it’s uncertain how many this will help. Some have said this may only be able to help just two more people—who have a past nonviolent history. The new law takes effect October 1st.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.