Restoring humanity and dignity to those wrongly convicted

The world Kristine Bunch re-entered in 2012 was vastly different than the one she left behind when she was incarcerated in 1996.

Everyday tasks were suddenly complicated. How do you turn on the water if the sink has no faucet? And 21st century technology? Foreign. How do you dial a smartphone?

Then there were the more practical questions. Where would Bunch live? Where would she find a job or health care?

bunch-kristine-mug Bunch

For most inmates, the Indiana Department of Correction offers wraparound services to help recently released offenders answer these questions. But Bunch is among a unique group of former prisoners who was not just released, she was exonerated — her murder and arson convictions completely wiped away. Not only was she not guilty, but according to the state, Bunch was innocent in a mobile home fire that killed her 3-year-old son.

Being exonerated may be justifying in the moment, but when Bunch walked out of prison, she discovered that the same services available to non-exonerees were not available to her. And with very little to her name, Bunch, like other exonerees, was forced to rebuild her life with limited resources, monetary or otherwise.

But a bill pending in the Indiana Legislature seeks to ease some of the burdens exonerees face. Under House Bill 1150, wrongly incarcerated citizens would be entitled to monetary compensation and also could be provided with the same transitional services available to released inmates.

steuerwald-greg-mug-2019 Steuerwald

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, the Avon Republican who authored HB 1150, said the idea is to help make exonerees whole after years of their lives were wrongfully taken by the state.

“Because a criminal action is brought by the state of Indiana, that’s why we’re doing it, from the legislative standpoint, that the state of Indiana would pay these funds,” Steuerwald said.

A first step

Under HB 1150, qualifying exonerees would be entitled to $50,000 per year for every year of incarceration. Applications for compensation would be filed with the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, which would decide if applicants are entitled to payment out of an exoneration fund consisting of appropriations from the general fund.

Eligibility is largely premised on the applicant’s actual innocence, Steuerwald said. He’s filed an amendment to his bill that would define an innocent person as, among other things, someone who is pardoned “on the basis of innocence” or who did not “commit any act, deed, or omission in connection to a charge that constitutes an offense against the state or the United States.”exoneration-factbox.gif

The gap between “not guilty” and “innocent” can be wide, said Fran Watson, director of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. “Not guilty” means just that — the defendant is not guilty of the charged crime. But being “innocent” means having absolutely nothing to do with the offense.

While money can never fully compensate for the time an innocent person loses in prison, Watson said providing at least some compensation to an exoneree is a first step toward helping them rebuild their lives.

Holistic help

In addition to money, HB 1150 would note that exonerees are not prevented from participating in inmate transitional services offered by DOC, community corrections or courts. That includes mental health and substance abuse treatment and any other available rehabilitation or reintegration services.

For Bunch, having access to programs that could have helped her find housing or a job would have significantly improved her re-entry. Issues most people don’t think about, such as how fashion has changed what is acceptable to wear to work, were a hurdle to her. .

Losing years in prison means more than just losing time, said Beth Powers, state policy advocate at the New York-based Innocence Project. It also means losing opportunities to go to school, build a career or save for retirement.

Similarly, when speaking to lawmakers in committee, Steuerwald said exonerees who leave the DOC are essentially told to find their own way home. He wants HB 1150 to clarify that those people are entitled to the same help upon leaving prison, especially considering their actual innocence.

Making a choice

Though Bunch, Watson and Powers said they are pleased Indiana is making a move toward compensating exonerees, there is one aspect of HB 1150 they are concerned about. Under the bill, exonerees such as Bunch who have filed civil suits against the state are not eligible to seek compensation from the exoneration fund.

The issue with that, Powers said, is that restitution lawsuits can take years to proceed, and often the plaintiff-exonerees are not successful. In those cases, Powers said it would not be fair for an exoneree to be excluded from compensation just because their argument did not convince a jury.

Some states, such as Florida, include similar restrictions in their compensation statutes. Florida also precludes any exoneree with one unrelated violent felony or two unrelated nonviolent felonies from seeking compensation, said Adina Thompson, intake coordinator for the Innocence Project of Florida.

But states such as Kansas allow exonerees to both sue the state and seek compensation from an exoneration fund, then awards the exoneree the greater amount. The difference between the two amounts is then sent back to the state, Powers said.

For his part, Steuerwald said he thinks the lawsuit restriction of HB 1150 is appropriate, because he sees the ability to immediately seek compensation from the fund as preferable to proceeding through a years-long legal battle. And for previous exonerees who have already sued the state, he’s filed an amendment that would allow them to take money from the fund if they dismiss their lawsuits within 30 days of the Criminal Justice Institute making an eligibility determination.

As of IL deadline, the House of Representatives had not yet considered Steuerwald’s amendments.

Steuerwald has broached the issue of exoneree compensation in the past and told Indiana Lawyer he thinks HB 1150 has a very good chance of success this year. Last year’s bill would only have offered $25,000 per year, but Powers said the $50,000 included in HB 1150 is more in line with national practices.

For Bunch, HB 1150 is not just about the money, though the money certainly helps. To her, it’s more about an acknowledgement that her incarceration was wrong. More often than not, Thompson said what exonerees want most is a simple apology.

“Go in and spend 60 days in prison, then you will realize how shamed I was, how mentally and physically tore down I was,” Bunch said. “And then I would ask you to come out and put a price tag on that. What you can do to restore dignity and to restore humanity — that should be the question.”•

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