In California, the wrongly convicted are rarely compensated

How much is a day of your life worth? Fifty dollars? A hundred dollars? A thousand? How much is your liberty worth, your freedom to work, travel, and spend time with loved ones?

In California, the state’s victim compensation board is authorized to award up to one hundred dollars a day for every day that an innocent person spends behind bars after a wrongful conviction. But according to a recent report by Marie C. Baca of California Watch, only a few of California’s wrongfully convicted are ever compensated by the state.

Since 2000, 132 former inmates have filed claims for compensation after new evidence overturned their convictions. Only eleven have received compensation. Of the remaining 121 claims, 56 were rejected without a hearing and 44 were denied compensation after receiving a hearing. Seven other claims were withdrawn, and fourteen are awaiting a hearing.

According to Jeff Chinn, assistant director of the California Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic in San Diego, which handles claims for the wrongfully accused: “The whole process is a mess. Our clients are asked to prove things far beyond what is reasonable.” He also says that the board’s standards are so subjective and inconsistently applied that “basically no one knows what it takes to be successful.”

Take the case of Jeffrey Rodriguez. A young man in his mid-twenties, Rodriguez was standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles when the victim of an auto parts store robbery the previous day identified him as the perpetrator. He spent over five years behind bars before he was released in 2007 after a Santa Clara County Superior court judge ruled Rodriguez factually innocent and expunged his conviction and arrest.

In 2009, when Rodriguez applied for compensation from the state, his claim was denied by a three-person panel, at least in part simply because the robbery victim still believed that Rodriguez was the perpetrator. This, despite the victim’s changing description of the robber, who was first described as clean-shaven with a hooded sweatshirt, then described as not clean-shaving and wearing a leather jacket.

Despite a judge’s official declaration of factual innocence, Rodriguez didn’t meet the first of three criteria the state requires for compensation- that the claimant actually did not commit the crime in question. The other two are that the claimant did not contribute to their own arrest by professing guilt for the crime, and that they experienced financial damages as a result of their incarceration. Innocence Project supporters argue that the third criteria is nearly always the case, as a majority of the wrongfully convicted cannot find jobs after spending years behind bars.

Overall, the criteria make sense. Obviously, claimants should actually be innocent in order to receive compensation from the state, and if they were actually responsible for their own incarceration by making an uncoerced confession of guilt, it hardly seems fair to make taxpayers responsible for compensating them. But the third criterion implies that the only damage a person can suffer is financial damage, an implication that contradicts countless other statutes and principles in U.S. and California law, both criminal and civil.

In the case of Rodriguez, Californians need to assess whether or not the state compensation board’s standards might not be too strict or subjective. In the justice system, policies should be consistent, reasonable, and fair.