Connecting state and local government leaders
A bipartisan Pennsylvania bill would award damages to individuals based on the number of years they spent incarcerated.
Vincent Moto spent nearly a decade in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
After being wrongfully convicted of rape and robbery in 1987, he was exonerated in 1996. In the more than 20 years since his conviction was vacated based on DNA results, Moto has been fighting to ensure individuals like him are compensated for their wrongful convictions.
“I’m in here in maximum security at that point because the charges they applied to me were all heinous crimes,” Moto, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following his release, said on Wednesday. “I’ve been struggling for so long and stuck with these problems. Now, I’m starting to have mental problems.”
Compensation for those who were wrongfully convicted was the central theme of the House Judiciary Committee hearing held Wednesday at the state Capitol. The committee heard testimony from restorative justice advocates supporting a wrongful conviction compensation bill that comes from an unlikely pair of legislators: state Reps. Frank Ryan and Regina Young, a Lebanon County Republican and a Philadelphia Democrat.
The legislation, House Bill 2794, would apply to individuals who were convicted of a felony they did not commit, served part or all of their sentence and received a pardon or acquittal upon retrial.
Those eligible for compensation would be awarded damages based on the number of years they spent incarcerated. Compensation could also take the form of child support incurred while incarcerated, attorney fees, reintegrative services and health care costs.
The legislation states that damages would equate to $100,000 for each year of imprisonment or involuntary treatment while awaiting a death sentence, $75,000 for each year of imprisonment or involuntary treatment for any other sentence or $50,000 for each year spent on parole or probation.
Currently, Pennsylvania is one of just 12 states that does not have some form of compensation for those who were wrongfully incarcerated.
“They were stripped away from their lives in such a harsh way,” Young said at the hearing. “To hear the struggles mentally, emotionally, physically… (and about) the graduations missed and the births missed. There's absolutely no way that you can put a dollar amount on that.”
Moto said his parents spent their life savings – about $160,000 – on attorney fees as they did what they could to fight his conviction. And after Moto was released from prison, he said he didn’t have the $6,000 needed to get his records expunged, meaning the conviction was stuck to his name up until last year when his record was finally cleared.
“Rape, robbery, deviant sexual intercourse … all these charges were on my record,” Moto said. “Would you hire someone like me?”
Moto and testifiers shared personal and anecdotal stories of individuals who have struggled with coming back to society following their wrongful convictions. On top of the physical and emotional toll that prison and a wrongful conviction can have on someone after release, testifiers said, they lack the support needed to cope with their health issues.
Dr. Chinchila Jonesia, founder of the Right the Wrong Coalition and Be a Voice, said about 100 individuals have been exonerated in Pennsylvania over the past 25 years since she began work on the issue. She noted that Moto has continued to advocate for this type of legislation during that timespan.
“Imagine all those years fighting to be compensated, year after year after year coming up to Harrisburg, which (Moto) has been doing, and still (getting) nothing,” Jonesia said at the hearing. “This is the furthest that a compensation bill has gotten so far.”
Despite the bipartisan nature of the legislation, some Republican lawmakers on the committee were wary of putting a dollar figure on it.
“The question is, how much money (is given) if somebody has been incarcerated for X number of years?” Knowles, a Republican from Berks County, said. “Do we make it like they hit the lottery and that they never have to work again?”
State Rep. Tim Briggs, Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, was dismayed by Knowles’ comments, calling them “offensive.”
“I don't know somebody who wants to serve 20-25 years and think they're gonna win the lottery,” said Briggs. “I think the minimum we have to do is to give them some compensation … We need to give them training and education to re-enter society and to make sure that we can do whatever we can to offset the deprivation of liberty.”
House Bill 2794 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee but it is unclear whether it gets a vote before lawmakers finish their legislative session in November.