Michigan House OKs $10M for wrongful imprisonment fund

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The nation’s longest-serving exoneree may now be paid more than $2 million the state of Michigan owes him after he served 46 years behind bars for a murder he never committed.

Richard Phillips, 72, rose to thunderous applause Tuesday afternoon after state House members unanimously passed legislation that will replenish a state fund meant to pay those who served prison time for crimes they didn’t commit.

Phillips went to prison in 1972 and was exonerated in March 2018 after new evidence emerged proving his innocence. The University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic, which investigates claims of wrongful conviction, helped free him.

Under state law, Michigan is supposed to pay former prisoners who are exonerated $50,000 for each year they wrongfully spent behind bars plus court fees. They have to go to court to get that money.

Michigan House | Michigan Municipal League, Flickr

But there wasn’t enough in the state’s Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Fund to pay Phillips. So he ended up selling art to make ends meet, as The Detroit News reported.

House Bill 4286, which passed 110-0, would make a one-time $10 million appropriation to the exonerated prisoners fund.

The legislation would now have to be approved by the state Senate before reaching Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk. Bill sponsor state Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Wayland Twp.) says he’s optimistic the other chamber will follow suit.

“There was a problem. And clearly, in the state of Michigan, we need to right that wrong,” Johnson told reporters after the House vote.

Previous lawmakers passed a law pledging to pay people who are exonerated from prison, so “it’s incumbent upon us as lawmakers to fulfill our obligation,” Johnson said.

2017 bill signing for former Sen. Steve Bieda’s wrongfully convicted legislation | Facebook

In addition to replenishing the fund with a one-time payment, the bill would also require quarterly financial reporting to the House and Senate regarding the fund.

Its balance last week was only $323,800, according to a nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency analysis. About $6.5 million has been appropriated to the fund since it formed in 2016.

So far, 39 wrongful imprisonment claims worth more than $21 million haven’t received compensation, according to the analysis.


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