By Danielle Silva
California Governor Gavin Newsom has recently signed Assembly Bills 701 and 703, increasing the support exonerees receive after leaving prison – bills that have received unanimous support across the senate and assembly.
Written by Assemblymember Shirley Weber, ABs 701 and 703 provide housing funds and free education to exonerees post-release. Prior to these bills, exonerees received assistance in accessing public services, such as Medi-Cal and CalFresh, and $1,000 upon the release.
AB 701 amends the law to provide exonerees $5,000 in funds for housing upon release, and direct payment or reimbursement for reasonable housing costs for no more than 4 years. Reasonable housing costs include security deposits, hotel costs not exceeding 25 percent above the federal General Services Administration’s per diem lodging reimbursement rate, rent costs not to exceed 25 percent above the Federal Housing Administration’s area loan limits, and mortgage rates not to exceed 25 percent above the fair market value as defined by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
While AB 701 focuses on housing, AB 703 focuses on providing free education for exonerees. AB 703 prohibits Universities of California, California State Universities, and California Community Colleges from collecting mandatory systemwide fees from exonerees who have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, and meet the financial need requirements established for Cal Grant A awards. This bill applies to all exonerees who are residents of the state, and exonerees are eligible for each academic year they apply, but not prior years.
Exonerees are identified as individuals who have been convicted and are released under the basis that they are actually innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. ABs 701 and 703 specify that the convicted individual must have a pardon from the governor on the basis the person is innocent, or a writ of habeas corpus that either provides evidence which points to unerring innocence, explains the conviction was made on insufficient evidence or states the charges the individual is convicted of have been dismissed.
Obie Anthony, an exoneree and founder of Exonerated Nation, was one of the co-sponsors of the bills. Anthony had been wrongfully convicted of a murder to which he had no relation, being convicted due to a fabricated testimony. Following his release from prison, he founded Exonerated Nation to assist other exonerees to receive the resources they need to restart their lives after so long in jail.
Anthony explained AB 701 and AB 703 stemmed from the efforts of Exonerated Nation and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice to talk with senators and other legislators. Several exonerees shared their stories with legislators, and all of them appeared to acknowledge the current struggles which exonerees face in terms of trying to restart their lives after prison – including housing struggles. Assemblymember Weber then approached Exonerated Nation for their help in drafting what are now AB 701 and AB 703.
Anthony shared that no opposition to the testimonies wasn’t a surprise. Any person could be wrongfully convicted, he stated.
Exonerated Nation posted on their Facebook page following the signing of ABs 701 and 703, thanking Governor Newsom and Assemblymember Weber for making California “the first state to pay for post-release housing costs for the wrongfully convicted.” He believes this sets an opportunity for other states to consider further support for exonerees, but also will lead to other considerations for Californian exonerees.
“So much still needs to be done,” Anthony stated. “Not only the needs of housing and education but mental health and food, and we need these things to live our lives where so much has been taken from us.”
While he’s thankful for the bill to have been passed, Anthony shared he didn’t understand why legislators didn’t do anything sooner.
“They had to know there were innocent people who were wrongfully convicted,” Anthony stated. “I have no answer why this hasn’t happened before.”
Exonerated Nation has a history of promoting legislation in support of exonerees. They helped establish the law that made it a felony for prosecutors to withhold information, and provided exonerees the same services as parolees – like mental health services, Medi-Cal, and CalFresh.
While these bills help future exonerees, Anthony notes that he and the rest of the already exonerated population are not affected by these bills.
“I ain’t a soldier or nothing, but can’t leave nobody behind,” Anthony stated.
Anthony, however, remains hopeful with the passing of AB 701 and AB 703. He acknowledges that legislation takes time to pass, but he also hopes that bills supporting exonerees continue to come.