Legislature Approves Bill Raising Compensation Limits For Wrongfully Convicted People

TRENTON – The Assembly approved a bill by a 52-22-2 vote on Thursday that would increase the amount of compensation awarded to those who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned and provide for additional services for such persons, giving it final legislative approval.

“Those who have suffered through wrongful imprisonment deserve reasonable and adequate compensation that is up-to-date with current standards,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer/Hunterdon), a sponsor of the bill. “We haven’t updated this law in 16 years, so it’s past time we do it to ensure we can help these people who endured a real-life nightmare.”

The bill (A-1640/3066) increases the statutory damage amounts awarded in lawsuits that may be brought by a person convicted and imprisoned for a crime which the person did not commit. That person may bring a suit for damages in Superior Court against the Department of the Treasury pursuant to a 1997 law. The bill also allows those claimants wrongfully imprisoned to seek and be awarded in those lawsuits the provision of additional services including but not limited to vocational training, tuition assistance, counseling, housing assistance and health insurance coverage as appropriate.

The bill first clarifies who may be eligible to bring such a claim. Under the current law, the claimant must establish that “he did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction” as one element of establishing wrongful imprisonment. This is expanded upon under the bill, so that the eligible claimant must also establish that “he did not commit or suborn perjury, [or] fabricate evidence,” or otherwise by the claimant’s own conduct cause or bring about the conviction being challenged.

The bill further specifies that neither a confession or admission later found to be false, nor a guilty plea to a crime the claimant did not commit, would constitute committing or suborning perjury, fabricating evidence or causing or bringing about a conviction by the claimant’s own conduct.

As to damages for eligible claimants, under current law damages cannot exceed twice the amount of the claimant’s income in the year prior to the claimant’s incarceration or $20,000 for each year of incarceration, whichever is greater.

The bill does not alter this measurement between the greater of income in the year prior to the claimant’s incarceration or the total per year amount for each year of incarceration, but this latter amount will be calculated at $50,000 per year instead of the current $20,000 per year.

Additionally, the bill provides for adjustments to this per-year amount once every five years in accordance with changes in the Consumer Price Index as reported by the United States Department of Labor.

The bill provides that in any successful suit in which a claimant’s damages exceed $1 million, the court may order that the award be paid as an annuity with a payout over a maximum period of 20 years. The court must consider the best interests of the claimant in making such determination.

Also the bill provides with respect to damages, any damages awarded will not be subject to treatment as gross income to the claimant under the New Jersey gross income tax; and any damages awarded in an additional suit, if any, filed by the claimant against the state, a political subdivision of the state, or any employee thereof, with respect to the same subject matter as a wrongful imprisonment suit will be offset by the damages awarded under the 1997 law for wrongful imprisonment.

The bill further provides that any lien for Public Defender services will be discharged in cases where the claimant is awarded damages for wrongful imprisonment. Current law requires the Public Defender to effectuate a lien on a defendant’s property in cases where the defendant may have means to meet part of the cost of Public Defender services; however, the bill’s provision requiring discharge of such lien with respect to wrongful imprisonment awards prevents enforcement of such lien against a successful claimant.

The bill will now goes to the governor.

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