In a major victory for people imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, Governor Jerry Brown on Sunday signed into law Senate Bill 618. The new law, introduced by Senator Mark Leno D-San Francisco, was the result of the work of a coalition including the California Innocence Project, the Northern California Innocence Project, and the ACLU. It completely revamps the law related to compensating the wrongfully convicted in California.
Under the previous law, people who were wrongfully convicted were entitled to $100 a day for each day they were wrongly incarcerated, but the process was lengthy, expensive and often the compensation was denied.
"The passage of this law is not just a great victory for the wrongfully convicted, but also recognition of the importance of judges in the justice system," said Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project at California Western. "The prior compensation process disrespected judicial decisions by giving no deference to them when deciding if a person had been wrongfully convicted. It also allowed for a long and drawn out process. The new law is just, makes sense, and saves both time and money."
One innocent man's case illustrates the inadequacies of the old law. Tim Atkins of Los Angeles was convicted of murder as a 17-year-old and served 23 years in prison for murder before the California Innocence Project proved that he was innocent. The same judge who convicted Mr. Atkins reversed his conviction. Although the judge had heard all of the witnesses, reviewed thousands of pages of documents, and knew the case better than anyone else, the Compensation Board ignored the judge's findings and denied compensation.
The new law states that, "if the court grants a writ of habeas corpus…and if the court finds that new evidence on the petition points unerringly to innocence, that finding shall be binding" on the board. The change in the language means people like Atkins, whose convictions were based on innocence, can be compensated without the time and expense of lengthy litigation to prove to the board what was already proved to a court which reversed their conviction.
"We actually have a new hearing coming up for Mr. Atkins so this is good timing," says Associate Director of the California Innocence Project Alex Simpson. "The compensation board will be able to rely upon the judicial decision to make its determination. Previously, the board had to have a ‘mini-trial’ for every claim. Now, if a judge has said a witness is credible, they're credible."
The goal of the compensation law is to enable wrongfully convicted people to get back on their feet. "The old law didn’t work," Brooks said. "Our clients waited years and were usually denied. I'm very pleased that the state legislature passed this law and that the Governor signed it."