The Kansas Legislature is taking up what should be a clear-cut question of right and wrong this week, weighing a decision that tests the moral character of the state.
There should be no debate.
Kansas must finally pass a law providing financial compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Payment is simply a matter of doing the right thing for those who have been wronged by the state.
On Wednesday, legislators will hear testimony from three men who had their lives upended when they were sent to prison for crimes they did not commit.
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All told, they served 55 years. Floyd Bledsoe, Richard Jones and Lamonte McIntyre have an unfortunate bond, knowing what was taken from them and struggling now to find their footing as free, exonerated men.
Their losses are financial, familial and deeply personal.
McIntyre will testify that the day he entered prison as a teenager was the most terrifying of his life. As his peers were finishing high school and choosing career paths, McIntrye awoke worrying about the violence he would encounter each day, questioning how he would survive.
At 23, Bledsoe was earning $26,000 a year as a dairy farmer. He lost everything — the land, the livestock and opportunities to grow his business. Then, the legal costs to prove his innocence began to mount.
Prison robbed Jones of time with his two young daughters. He struggled with not being able to care for them financially or emotionally.
Like the other men, Jones is grateful for the community support he’s received, but he pointedly notes that everyone but the state of Kansas has been generous.
Kansas has paid them nothing.
Senate Bill 336 would provide $80,000 for each year served. The compensation mirrors Texas’ approach and is in line with other states. Colorado pays $70,000 for every year served, and Minnesota pays as much as $100,000. Kansas is one of 18 states with no compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
In Missouri, legislators will find an example of the costs of passing an inadequate law. Missouri will only provide compensation if the wrongfully convicted are exonerated by DNA evidence. This has left the state open to lawsuits and costly settlements, an additional burden on taxpayers.
Writing a fair compensation process into Kansas law would limit the state’s exposure to expensive legal battles. Further protections are built into the legislation. If the exoneree successfully sues the state and wins a civil penalty, that money is deducted from what the state owes.
The payments are not for poor legal representation or a mishandled case. Recipients must prove themselves innocent of a felony for which they have served time.
The law also would require issuing an exonerated person a certificate of innocence — a practical necessity for those who have been wrongfully convicted. An employer told one of the men that they feared hiring him because of public perception.
These men are owed so much more than an apology. The state can’t recover time lost, but compensation would provide exonerees with the best chance of restarting their lives.
These men are not murderers, they are not robbers or kidnappers. They have been cleared of all charges.
At this point, the real crime will be if Kansas refuses to compensate them fairly.