RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia’s compensation for the wrongfully incarcerated falls behind national average by several thousand dollars, and the University of Virginia Innocence Project is urging state leaders to increase it.
“I can unequivocally say no, it is not enough,” said Juliet Hatchett with the UVA Innocence Project. “A person who has been wrongfully convicted has been denied choices, liberties, and options for however long they were incarcerated, and we should do everything we can do give them their choices, their liberties, their options as quickly as possible.”
The national average for compensating the wrongfully incarcerated is $70,157 per year spent in prison, according to data from a study highlighted in the Virginia House Appropriations Committee’s 2020 report “Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Formula in Virginia”.
Up until this year, Virginia paid out $46,895 per year. Texas, for example, ranks among the top when it comes to compensating the wrongfully incarcerated at $97,262 per year of wrongful imprisonment.
A bill introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan and Sen. Louise Lucas aimed to bring that number closer to $81,000 per year in Virginia. However, a video recording of a committee hearing on the bill in January shows marked opposition from Republican Del. Rob Bell.
Del.Sullivan said he made concessions to get some type of improvement passed, leading to a compromise of $55,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment beginning this summer, a nearly eight thousand dollar increase per year of incarceration.
“Do we really want Virginia to be anything but at the front of the pack in terms of how we treat our citizens who've been so badly wronged?” said Del. Sullivan. “I know of no one in the General Assembly, who doesn't agree that some anyone in Virginia has been wrongfully incarcerated deserves compensation. Where sometimes we break down in the discussion […] is how much they get compensated.”
Del. Sullivan’s bill also aimed for the wrongfully incarcerated to receive all their money up front, instead of the 25-year annuity that’s been state law since 2004. Del. Sullivan said comprises with Del. Bell shortened the annuity to 10 years. Only innocent people over the age of 60 will receive a lump sum payment.
“If you want to look for one issue that shouldn't be political, this would it, right?” said Del. Sullivan. “It can't even be a soft on crime thing right because, by definition, we're dealing with someone who didn't commit a crime.”
News 3 reached out to Del. Bell for weeks for comment, but there was no response as of this report.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 68 people have been exonerated in Virginia since 1989, totaling 606 years lost.
“We didn’t deserve to be falsely accused and sent to prison,” said Emerson Stevens, who was granted an absolute pardon by former Gov. Ralph Northam last year after spending nearly 32 years in prison for a 1986 murder in Lancaster. “We all deserve more than what the state of Virginia is offering us.”
Stevens will receive nearly $1.7 million from the General Assembly next month as compensation for the three decades he spent in prison as an innocent man. According to the budget bill for his compensation, an investigator with a history of misconduct helped pave the way for his conviction.
Additionally, the UVA Innocence Project learned prosecution’s main witness lied on the stand, and unreliable science was used to incorrectly link a hair on Stevens’ truck to the murder victim.
“I [still have] nightmares of the things that I’ve seen in prison,” said Stevens. “[The money] don’t bring back the years that I spent in prison, but I can live the rest of my life out, living comfortable.”
Del. Sullivan and Sen. Lucas said they will introduce legislation to increase Virginia’s compensation for the wrongfully incarcerated again in the next General Assembly session.