Legislation that would award Colorado’s wrongfully convicted $70,000 for each year of incarceration was unanimously passed by the House Judiciary Committee Thursday and now moves to the House Appropriations Committee, where it faces a vote that could bring it before the House floor.
One proponent of the compensation bill, HB 1230, is Timothy Masters, whose wrongful conviction cost him nearly a decade of his life and left him broke upon his release. Masters would not personally benefit from the bill.
“To me it’s a no-brainer,” Masters said. “If we as a society lock somebody up for years for something they didn’t do, we’ve got to do something for them when they get out of prison.”
Masters was convicted in 1999 of the 1987 murder of a 37-year-old woman in Fort Collins, Colorado. He was 15 when the crime was committed. He was released in 2008 with only the money he earned working for minimum wage in the saddle shop at Buena Vista Correctional Facility and no state assistance. Two years later, Masters received a $10 million settlement from the city of Fort Collins and Larimer County. However, most exonerees are not able to win a lawsuit because of the challenges of proving that their wrongful conviction resulted from intentional misconduct.
The bill, proposed by Reps. Angela Williams and Dan Pabon, both Denver Democrats, would entitle death row prisoners to an additional $50,000 for each year served, and wrongfully convicted people would be eligible for $25,000 for each year they were on parole. Those wrongfully imprisoned for at least three years would be eligible for college tuition, compensation for child support they were unable to pay while incarcerated, attorney fees and fines and other costs associated with their court cases. About half of the states have a compensation law on the books, though the awards vary greatly and are often insufficient for rebuilding a life. If HB 1230 becomes law, it would rank among the nation’s best.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers testified in support of the bill. And although Masters was unable to attend the committee hearing, Innocence Project client Robert Dewey, who was exonerated of murder in Colorado last year after serving 17 years in prison, was on hand to give testimony about the challenges faced once released.
“Best job you can get is cleaning toilets,” he said Thursday during testimony that left lawmakers wiping tears from their eyes.