State would pay for wrongfully convicting Alaskans under new proposals

Rep. Scott Kawasaki (L) talks with Rep. Adam Wool during a break in a House floor session....
Rep. Scott Kawasaki (L) talks with Rep. Adam Wool during a break in a House floor session. Both are Fairbanks Democrats. (KTUU)
Published: Feb. 20, 2017 at 4:02 PM AKST
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Even when a state court confirms someone was wrongly convicted of a crime in Alaska, when the innocent person walks free, they are not guaranteed any compensation for the time they lost behind bars.

The only recourse is to file a lawsuit against the state, an expensive and time-consuming process. However, one new proposal aims to bring the Last Frontier in line with a majority of other states. Another bill would make it so the wrongfully convicted are immediately paid any Permanent Fund dividends they forfeited.

House Bill 118 from Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, would make state government pay the wrongfully convicted up to $2 million, with the actual payment equal to $50,000 for each year served.

Under the proposal, the person must file a claim with the attorney general and prove "by a preponderance of the evidence" that they were convicted of a crime, sentenced to prison, and actually spent time behind bars.

People who are pardoned because of innocence or wrongful conviction would be eligible, and so would anyone whose sentence is reversed or vacated because they are found not guilty. Committing perjury or making up evidence in a way that causes the conviction would make someone ineligible for the compensation.

The bill would also provide access to healthcare and educational opportunities.

Prisoners are not eligible to receive the yearly dividend payments Alaska residents receive. Kawasaki's second proposal, House Bill 126, would change that, guaranteeing anyone whose conviction is dismissed, reversed, or vacated would receive the dividends immediately. The plan mirrors an unsuccessful proposal former Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, introduced in the previous Legislature.

"If a person is exonerated, we should be able to compensate those folks for a miscarriage of justice," Kawasaki said of his bills in an interview.

Kawasaki represents Fairbanks, where four men -- George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts, and Eugene Vent -- were released in 2015 after serving decades in prison after being convicted of the 1997 murder of John Hartman.

While the men were released from prison, they were not entirely exonerated, and they agreed not to file a lawsuit against the state seeking financial compensation.

Neither of the bills would address the ability of the Department of Law to offer people behind bars release contingent on an agreement to not sue the state.

One major stumbling block is that the proposals would come at a cost, and state government is already grappling with a multi-billion dollar budget gap.

Both bills are expected to get initial hearings in March.