The state of Kansas is poised to take a significant step toward righting a grave injustice, the theft of people’s freedom for crimes they did not commit.
On Friday, legislators worked out a compromise, agreeing to award $65,000 per year for every year an exoneree was wrongfully imprisoned.
Initial payments would be up to $100,000 or 25 percent of what is owed. Subsequent annual payments would be $80,000.
The reason is telling. Several Kansas men were wrongfully imprisoned for so long that legislators felt it would take too many years to fairly compensate them without the higher yearly payouts.
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The state believes there are about a half dozen exonerees who currently qualify. These are not people who had charges dismissed as a result of mistakes by the prosecution. They’ve been proven innocent.
The legislation is expected to receive wide support. Gov. Jeff Colyer should sign it immediately.
Each testified before Senate and House committees. Their stories, heart-wrenching tales of struggling to reconnect with family and rebuild careers with no help but charity, prompted lawmakers to alter the original legislation.
In addition to the financial payments based on years imprisoned, the compromise measure also would provide free college or vocational training and health insurance. The educational benefits include books, fees and housing. And mental health coverage would be a part of their medical care.
All three men attended Thursday evening’s gala for the Midwest Innocence Project, which had a role in several of the exonerations. All of the men say their quest for justice was never simply about financial compensation.
“It hasn’t been about the money only, ever since I got home,” said Jones, who served 17 years for a robbery he did not commit. “This is about bringing change, sending a message.”
Jones and the others are hopeful that the payments will ensure that no other person will struggle financially as they have after being exonerated.
Each also talks of what justice will entail: holding accountable those who had a role in wrongfully convicting them.
State Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, worked on the compromise and noted that legislators are aware of that objective.
“Compensation is another court saying you were wronged,” she said. “It will give even more weight to the process of going after those who had a direct hand in that wrongful conviction.”