Wrongfully convicted Alaskans could get up to $50,000 for every year of incarceration if lawmakers pass a bill introduced Wednesday.
Currently, such a person would get no compensation, but that has never been challenged because there is not a known wrongful conviction in Alaska history, said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, a Fairbanks Democrat and sponsor of HB352.
“It’s really hard to get a person fair compensation for the number of years they spent in jail away from loved ones and unable to grow up, essentially,” Kawasaki said, adding, “you can’t pay back a person for time they were wrongfully in prison.”
The bill would allow wrongfully convicted persons to request compensation up to a cap of $2 million. To be eligible, the person must be exonerated via a retrial, dismissed charges or executive pardon because of innocence.
“The one thing I hope this will do is for people who are wrongfully convicted is it will at least give them a good starting point,” he said.
If lawmakers approve HB352, Alaska would become the 30th state plus the District of Columbia to have some form of compensation statute, Kawasaki said.
“This is an issue I hope folks will pay real close attention to,” he said.
If the legislation is not approved this session, Kawasaki plans to bring it forward next year, he said.
“There’s a lot of cases being overturned from post-conviction DNA,” he said.
A recent report indicated 2013 was a record year for exonerations, Kawasaki said, adding that he expects that trend to continue.
“A lot of the reason that has happened is because of technological advancements like DNA (testing),” he said. “More and more cases will be tried. There will be a lot more convictions overturned.”
The bill is part of a suite introduced by the Fairbanks Democrat. The companion bill is HB339, which seeks to improve the reliability of eyewitness testimony, “the single most contributing factor to wrongful convictions,” Kawasaki said.
“It improves and reforms the justice system we have in place,” Kawasaki said of the paired legislation. “You want the guilty to be convicted, and you want innocent people to be set free. That speaks to both bills.”
HB339 aims to improve the eyewitness testimony by requiring witnesses to evaluate a lineup of individuals in sequential order, rather than looking at a whole group including a suspect at once.