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Lawmakers Hope To Ease Compensation Process For Wrongfully Incarcerated

prison cells
Thomas Hawke via Flickr

A bipartisan effort to revamp the state’s wrongful incarceration compensation program is moving through the legislature. The proposal could make it easier for exonerees to get compensation.

Florida is one of 30 states that automatically compensates those who are wrongfully incarcerated. But Florida’s eligibility requirements mean not all exonerees get paid out once they’re freed. That’s because of the Clean Hands Provision, passed by the Legislature in 2008. Under that Provision, people with prior felony convictions cannot be automatically compensated, even if those convictions happened while wrongfully imprisoned. Senator Rob Bradley of Orange Park says the law is too strict.

“Basically, if anybody had committed a felony at any point in time in their life, including some drug possession when they were 18 years old, and then they were later found wrongfully incarcerated for another crime at a later date, then they are precluded from obtaining compensation. And I think that’s wrong,” he said.

Senator Arthenia Joyner of Tampa sponsored the original wrongful incarceration bill back in 2008. Now she and Senator Bradley are working together to ease the eligibility requirements. Bradley says the proposal would amend the Clean Hands Provision, but it wouldn’t eliminate it.

“This is a modest change. It just says that the only felonies that would fall under the Clean Hands Provision would be those certain violent felonies that are the worst of the worst,” he said.

Joyner raises the case of William Dillon, who was denied automatic compensation because of the possession of a single Quaalude pill.

“William Dillon, who after 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, could not seek compensation under the wrongful incarceration law because he had a past conviction for drug possession. So this bill is an effort to address this inequitable situation,” she said.

Back in 2008, supporters hailed the wrongful incarceration act as an historic move towards justice. When the bill went to the floor, only one lawmaker voted no, Senator Jeremy Ring of Margate.

“When we originally did wrongful incarceration, it was a 159 to 1 vote in the Florida Legislature. I was only the one to vote against it, and I voted against it because of the Clean Hands Amendment. And Senator Joyner at the time was very upset with me but I think she over time understood, and accepted that no vote. And probably the best vote I feel I’ve taken since I’ve been here. But I want to thank you for doing this now, and now I can support your wrongful incarceration bill. Thank you,” he said.

Some critics would rather see the Clean Hands Provision eliminated altogether. But Bradley says the proposal is a step in the right direction.

“I’m proud to join Leader Joyner in support of this bill that is grounded in a deep respect for the Constitution, and the understanding that the one thing that the government can do to somebody above all else that is the greatest denier of their rights is to incarcerate them,” he said.

The bill has one more committee stop before it heads to the Senate Floor.