LANSING — There’s no way for a state to give back time — sometimes decades — to people who served in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Most states offer money to compensate people who manage to prove their innocence — but Michigan isn’t one of them.
Legislation introduced earlier this year by Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, aims to change that.
Thirty states across the country compensate people who are wrongly convicted. But Michigan exonerees not only go uncompensated, they also are denied access to services available to parolees who were rightfully convicted.
“If you are an exoneree, you get nothing — no help whatsoever. You’re no longer within the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections,” said David Moran, a law professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.
If the legislation introduced by Bieda becomes law, those who were wrongfully convicted would receive $60,000 for each year spent behind bars.
Exonerations in the state are not common. Since 1990, Michigan has only had 55 documented exonerations, according to Moran.
Bieda has long been pushing this legislation, introducing it in prior sessions in both the House and Senate.
He was inspired to introduce the legislation after hearing about the case of Kenneth Wyniemko of Macomb County.
In 1994, Wyniemko was convicted of criminal sexual misconduct, breaking and entering and armed robbery. In 2003, after he spent nine years in prison, new DNA evidence was introduced by the Cooley Innocence Project, which led Wyniemko’s conviction to be overturned.
While Wyniemko was able to sue Clinton Township and receive $3.7 million in compensation for his time spent in prison, Bieda said this is not a common occurrence.
“He’s actually the exception, not the rule,” Bieda said.
“Most of these folks that come out don’t get anything. Many of them live in close to poverty conditions.”
Bieda stressed that the legislation is not designed to blame government, prosecutors or judges. The goal is simply to help these individuals who were wrongfully convicted get back on their feet.
“People who have spent all those years in prison, some of them have lost their family. Oftentimes these folks are not from economically (stable) backgrounds, and they’ve also lost the opportunity to make a living during these time periods,” Bieda said.
As only 55 exonerations in the past 25 years attests, proving the innocence of someone who has been convicted of a crime is not simple.
“It’s a very difficult, long process,” Moran said. “Our cases typically take years, and many of them are based on luck — that we happen to be able to find a piece of evidence that exonerates the defendant.”
The $60,000 per year figure is about the average of the 30 other states that have similar compensation programs, according to both Bieda and Moran.
Some states, such as Texas, have compensation levels as high as $80,000 per year.
“If you were to ask somebody how much money they would require to be locked up in prison for a year for a crime they didn’t commit, nobody would say, ‘$60,000 would cover it,’” Moran said. “But we have to be realistic about what taxpayers are willing to bear.”
The legislation has co-sponsors from both political parties, including Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who also co-sponsored previous versions of the legislation introduced by Bieda.
“Once in a while, the system makes a mistake, and I will personally continue to fight for innocent people to be compensated properly,” said Jones, who prior to serving in the state legislature spent over 30 years in law enforcement.
Although Bieda has introduced the legislation many times before, he remains optimistic on its prospects this time around.
As he says, it’s the right thing to do.
“This isn’t something like no-fault (insurance legislation) that just shot through with major donors and interest groups pushing it,” Bieda said.
“It is really citizen advocacy more than anything, which makes it a little slower, but it’s a very pure process.”