Louisiana may increase annual compensation for people wrongfully convicted of a crime

Louisiana House expected to vote on the matter in the coming weeks

Courtroom Gavel
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Louisiana lawmakers may increase the amount of money paid out annually to a small group of people who the court has decided were wrongfully convicted of a crime and deserve compensation for the time they spent in prison.

The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice forwarded legislation to the full House Tuesday that would accelerate or increase the compensation given to people who were found to be wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. The group of people affected by the bill would be small. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office estimated just 17 people in the state could benefit from the proposal.

Currently, the state pays a handful of people who were wrongfully convicted $25,000 annually for every year they were incarcerated. The payout is capped at $250,000 — or 10 years — over their lifetimes.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna, would increase that annual payment to $50,000 annually for every year they are incarcerated, but keep the lifetime cap of $250,000 in place. 

If passed, the legislation would double annual compensation for 15 people who are currently receiving the $25,000 payment each year. Additionally, two people who used to receive the $25,000 payment — but never hit the cap of $250,000 — would also be eligible to receive additional compensation until they reached $250,000 cap, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office.

The legislation also expands the period during which a judge can award a person for compensation over a wrongful conviction. The current law says that people can only be compensated if a court found they were entitled to that compensation between Sept. 1, 2005 and Sept. 1, 2011. The bill would lengthen that period from Sept. 1, 2005 to July 1, 2021.

Ultimately though, a very small number of people will meet the qualifications for the payments. Innocence Project New Orleans says that only 33 people have ever qualified for financial compensation for a wrongful conviction and most of those people have already hit the $250,000 cap. The number of people who qualify for the benefit  is not expected to increase substantially, Marino said.

A judge typically has only reversed or vacated previous convictions based on DNA evidence. In recent years, there have been fewer cases in which new DNA evidence has led to exonerations because prosecutors are using more sophisticated DNA tests now before they bring cases to trial, Marino said. There are some wrongful convictions based on prosecutors acting improperly and withholding evidence as well, but they are less common, according to Marino.

The Innocence Project New Orleans said that many other states offer more generous compensation to people found to have been wrongfully convicted of a crime. Texas pays out $80,000 annually with no cap on compensation. Alabama pays out $50,000 with no cap. Florida also pays out $50,000 with a $2 million lifetime cap.

In total, 36 states — including Louisiana — and the federal government compensate people who are wrongfully convicted, but 15 states provide no compensation at all. Some conservative Republicans on the criminal justice committee said this is why they were opposing the legislation as it moved out of committee. They said Louisiana’s benefits appeared to be in the middle of the pack, when it comes to states.

Yet, on a per capita basis, Louisiana has had to vacate more convictions than any other state, said Kia Hayes, an attorney with the Innocence Project New Orleans, at Tuesday’s committee meeting.

The proposal has bipartisan support, and is being co-sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, one of the powerful lawmakers in the Legislature.

Magee brought his own bill last year to increase compensation for people with wrongful convictions. He would have raised the annual payment to $40,000 per year. The legislation ended up being scuttled, when the 2020 legislative session was compressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.