Less than a month ago, Rhode Island was one of only 14 states in the country that did not have laws to compensate wrongfully convicted prisoners. But on Sept. 16, Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee signed a bill that will provide compensation for exonerees when their innocence comes to light.
Under the bill, exonerees are entitled to petition the Rhode Island Superior Court for a $50,000 payment for each year spent in prison, or for $137 per day if they were incarceratedfor less than a year. The bill also allows claimants to seek damage compensations for attorney fees, housing, transportation, subsistence, reintegrative services and mental and physical health care costs.
“It is hard to imagine the anger and suffering that one must face when wrongfully imprisoned,” McKee said in a Sept. 17 press release. “Wrongful imprisonment is an injustice, and as a state, we owe these individuals the compensation that they deserve. Although it can never give them back the time that they lost, we hope that it can help them to get back on the track to a successful life.”
The bill was spearheaded by State Representative Patricia A. Serpa, D-West Warwick, Warwick and Coventry.
Hearing about the experiences of an exoneree provided Serpa’s inspiration for shaping and passing the bill, she said. “Scott Hornoff contacted me four years ago. He was a Rhode Island man who was convicted for a crime that he did not commit in Warwick,” Serpa said. “He spent six and a half years in prison for it anyway and was freed when the man who actually committed the murder came forward.” Hornoff was a constituent of Serpa’s district at the time and galvanized her to take up this cause.
“Scott introduced me to some people in the (New England) Innocence Project,” Serpa said. “We fashioned some legislation and modeled it after some in other states that offer compensation to people who have spent time in prison and (have been) wrongly convicted.”
In an email to The Herald Hornoff credited Serpa and Radha Natarajan, executive director at the New England Innocence Project, for their “tireless efforts” pushing the bill through.
“The New England Innocence Project testified in favor of the legislation over the last several legislative sessions and remained in close contact with the champion of this legislation, Representative Patricia Serpa, as well as the inspiration for it, Exoneree Scott Hornoff,” Natajaran wrote in an email to The Herald.
The new legislation has been passed unanimously by the R.I. House of Representatives for three years in a row, but was bottlenecked on the floor of the Senate until this year.
“I think the Senate had some concern that it might cause financial hardship to the state, … (that) the floodgates would open and there would be a number of people wanting to be compensated for the time that they’ve lost,” Serpa said.
The new legislation hopes to help exonerees re-enter society, but the effects of its passage are yet to be seen.
“The compensation statute is only as good as its accessibility to people for whom it was intended. In some states, the existence of a compensation law has been undermined by the difficult process it takes to qualify and access the funding,” wrote Natarajan. “From experiences in other jurisdictions, we hope that this process in Rhode Island … does not lead to further trauma by requiring exonerees to re-litigate their innocence.”
Hornoff believes the bill still has room for improvement, like amending it so that crucial assistance to exonorees will be provided by the Rhode Island Department of Health and Human Services rather than the prison’s probation and parole department and increasing the payout to exonorees to better reflect today’s cost of living. “But I’m unsure when that will be possible,” he wrote. Additionally, Hornoff said that the Senate amended the bill with “wording that will bar exonerees who had ineffective assistance of counsel at trial.”
“They should not have added that amendment,” he said.
Serpa hopes that the clarity of the legislation will allow exonerees to receive their compensation easily once they’re released from prison — and that since the process of exoneration in Rhode Island is thorough, those who are released from jail should have little difficulty with their petition.
In certain cases — including Hornoff’s — it may cost R.I. taxpayers more to keep the wrongfully convicted in the prison system than it would to pay the compensation entitled to them under the new bill, according to Serpa. Hornoff was one of a few cases in the state so far who have qualified for compensation under the new bill.
Serpa believes that compensation is the least that the state can do. For her, justice is due to any person who was wrongfully convicted, imprisoned, then released into the state with just “a brown paper bag with (their) belongings, no job training, no healthcare.”
It took multiple legislative sessions for the bill to finally make it to McKee’s desk. “I was not going to throw down the gauntlet and concede defeat,” Serpa said. “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”