JUNEAU—A Fairbanks lawmaker's bill would create a system to compensate wrongfully convicted people for the time they spent behind bars.
House Bill 55 by Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki would pay the wrongly convicted up to $50,000 per year for incarceration up to a cap of $2 million.
The bill was heard by and advanced from the House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
"While no amount of money can truly compensate for the time spent wrongfully incarcerated, the concept is to provide finances so they can get back on their feet and start their life after prison," he said.
Bill Oberly, the executive director Alaska Innocence Project, testified in support of the bill. The Alaska Innocence Project is an extension of a national effort to exonerate the wrongfully convicted using new or previously unused evidence.
Oberly said there haven't been any exonerations in Alaska to date, but he said the project has identified a number of cases that he believes can be overturned. Oberly and the Alaska Innocence Project are involved in an attempt to free four men who were convicted for the 1997 beating death of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman.
A number of committee members pointed out that convicting in Alaska is tougher than many other states, and some wondered if setting a compensation policy would encourage more attempts to overturn convictions.
Oberly responded that innocence lawsuits are not easy endeavors.
"I can tell you that this is one of the most complex and difficult cases to undertake," he said. "I wouldn't think that anyone would take this on as a money-making proposition."
The effort to overturn the convictions of the four men in the Hartman murder has been working its way through the courts since the fall of 2013.
Kawasaki also added that setting wrongful conviction compensation in state law will help the state protect itself from civil lawsuits.
"It proactively protects the state coffers by instituting a compensation plan to help the reintegration process rather than waiting for exonerees to sue the state," he said. "The average civil award is about $3.6 million."
The committee advanced the bill with little discussion. It now heads to the House Judiciary Committee and has a stop in the House Finance Committee after that.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.