Sunday, April 4, 2010

Haridopolos finds money for an Innocence Commission

By Kathleen Haughney The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A tweak to the state budget could provide $200,000 to create a commission through the Supreme Court to investigate wrongful convictions in Florida.

“As we know there are sometimes, unfortunately, events … where Florida residents have been wrongfully convicted and hopefully this will not happen in the future,” said Senate President Designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, who sponsored the amendment.

The idea of an innocence commission has been floated over the last several months. In December, former American Bar Association President Sandy D’Alemberte filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court asking it to establish a commission. Last week, the court sent a letter to D’Alemberte saying that a petition was not the appropriate mechanism for establishing a commission, but said that the court may call for one anyway.

“The Court, however, is very much interested in looking at the cases of actual innocence, and is considering the establishment of a commission or task force by Administrative Order,” Chief Justice Peggy Quince wrote to D’Alemberte.

The amendment to the Senate budget, which was quickly approved without opposition, shifts $200,000 within the State Court Trust Fund from a budget item dedicated to “contracted services” for the circuit courts to one creating the commission.

A spokesman for the Supreme Court said that the court’s legislative office had been given a heads-up about the amendment, but because it was a last-minute proposal, court officials have not yet determined how it could affect court operations.

“We don’t really know yet, because this is so new,” said Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters in an e-mail message to the News Service.

Contracted services for the courts could include anything from repair and maintenance agreements, to employment services, legal and official notices, delivery services, fingerprinting and background checks, Waters said.

The House has not put a similar amendment creating the commission in its budget, so whether it will ultimately make the final version of the budget remains in question.

D’Alemberte initially suggested modeling a Florida commission after one in North Carolina, which includes representatives from the governor’s office, defense attorneys, law enforcement representatives, prosecutors, law professors and victims’ advocates. In addition to North Carolina, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin also have similar commissions.

Haridopolos had initially shown support for the idea of a commission months ago and inquired about the budget for a commission.

In a letter responding to Haridopolos, Quince wrote that it was examining past commissions to see the amount of money necessary to adequately study and make recommendations related to wrongful convictions.

According to Quince, the budget for the Gender Bias Study Commission over a three year period was $321,589, peaking at about $146,000 in fiscal year 1988. The Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission had a $378,350 budget over five years, with the highest yearly appropriation at $278,350 in fiscal year 1991

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