People wrongfully convicted of crimes could be compensated for their unnecessary punishment, even if they pleaded guilty, under a proposal in the Legislature that would also cover people wrongfully put on New Jersey’s sex offender registry.

The idea has now gotten two hearings – one in March, one last week – though no votes in the Assembly.

“We are a country of laws, and we’re innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately sometimes the innocent get proven guilty anyway. And I think when that happens, we need to compensate those victims,” said Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth, a sponsor of bill A1037.

“Unfortunately, our compensation laws are a little bit lacking, especially for those that are convicted of a crime of a sexual nature,” DiMaso said. “It kind of ruins their reputations forever. It’s not something that can be easily shaken.”

That was the case for Dion Harrell, who wrongfully convicted of a rape in Long Branch in 1988 at age 22. He served four years in prison and more than 20 years on sex offender registry, until a DNA test showed he was innocent.

“Being on the sex offender registry is humiliating. I couldn’t be alone with my children. I couldn’t live with my sister because she had children,” Harrell said. “For many years, I bounced around different jobs. For many years, I was homeless.”

“When I was innocent all these years, I was not really free,” Harrell told the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee. “It hurt my family and me. I hope you’ll support fixing the law so people like me can get fair compensation.”

People can sue to be compensated up to $50,000 a year for the time they were wrongfully incarcerated. The bill would allow them to also be compensated up to $25,000 for each year wrongfully on the sex offender registry.

Michelle Feldman, state campaigns director for The Innocence Project, the group that helped Harrell prove he was wrongfully convicted, said “there’s really a minimal price tag to this.”

Feldman said the only other person known to be affected is Rodney Roberts, who was locked up for 17 years for a 1996 rape he did not commit. The two cases combined could cost the state an estimated $1.4 million.

“There’s very few people who are able to prove their innocence after they’ve been out of prison for a period of time, but those that can, they really deserve fair compensation to rebuild their lives,” Feldman said.

Sarah Fajardo, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the proposed bill “is critical for the survival and ability to thrive for folks who’ve been wrongfully convicted.”

“Research has found deep ties between poverty, imprisonment and criminal justice system impact,” Fajardo said. “And extending financial opportunities for folks, especially folks who’ve been exonerated through the system, is critical.”

Only four states, including New Jersey, bar people from being compensated if they pleaded guilty. That limitation was added in 2013 through a conditional veto issued by then-Gov. Chris Christie as part of a law raising the allowable compensation from $20,000.

“It’s really counterintuitive for innocent people to plead guilty, but it happens all the time,” Feldman said. “One in 10 of our DNA exonerees pled guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. There’s just a tremendous amount of pressure in the system to do that.”

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