Editorial: Compensate the exonerated

Money can’t make the wrongly convicted whole, but it can give them a chance at a decent future.

A proposal to compensate those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes in Kansas for their time in prison should be approved by legislators.

Senate Bill 336 would award $80,000 for each year spent in prison to those exonerated of crimes. Last week three such men testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among them was Floyd Bledsoe, who spent 16 years in prison for the rape and homicide of his teenage sister-in-law. After DNA evidence exonerated Bledsoe, his brother committed suicide, leaving behind a note in which he confessed to the crime.

Bledsoe was freed in 2015.

Bledsoe worked as a dairy farmer before his conviction and had plans to eventually raise beef. He had land and livestock that all eventually had to be sold. He came out of prison with no money and no place to live.

He said the $80,000 per year would be a good start toward helping him put his life back together.

“It’s hard for people to comprehend what it’s like to walk out after being labeled a murderer and a child molester,” Bledsoe testified.

Kansas is among 18 states that do not have compensation programs for those who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. Among the 32 states and the District of Columbia that do have programs established, compensation amounts range from $25,000 per year in Louisiana to $200,000 per year in the District of Columbia. The Kansas bill is similar to what is used in Texas, which awards $80,000 per year plus annuity and reintegration financial assistance.

Money can’t fully compensate people like Bledsoe for what they endured. The Innocence Project, which works on behalf of those wrongfully convicted, noted that those who have been cleared of crimes by DNA evidence spend, on average, 14 years in prison. Not only is that time in which they have lost wages and potential retirement savings, it also is time spent away from their families and others who could provide them with support upon their release. Many come out of prison without money, health insurance or job skills. And despite the fact that they have been proven innocent, the stigma of their convictions and incarcerations isn’t easily shed.

Lamonte McIntyre was among those who testified last week. McIntyre was convicted of a 1994 double homicide in Kansas City, Kan. He was arrested at the age of 17 and was incarcerated for 23 years before he was released in October when the case against him was dismissed.

“The state of Kansas can’t give me back the 23 years it took from me,” McIntyre said. “But it can pass a compensation law so I can start my path to a successful future.”

Senate Bill 336 faces an uphill battle. Similar legislation in 2016 and in 2017 died in committee. The Senate Judiciary committee will resume consideration of the bill on Monday.

Justice isn’t perfect and when it’s wrong, as it was in the case of Bledsoe and McIntyre, people suffer greatly. Money can’t erase what they have been through, but it can give them what they have earned: a chance at a decent future.