Gov. Christie on Friday signed into law a bill increasing compensation for people who are wrongfully imprisoned, from $20,000 per year of incarceration to $50,000.
The increase in the cap on statutory damages to $50,000 per year - or twice the claimant's income in the year before incarceration, whichever is greater - puts New Jersey in line with what federal law provides, according to the nonprofit Innocence Project.
New Jersey is among 29 states and the District of Columbia providing some form of compensation to victims.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D., Mercer), one of the bill's sponsors, said in a statement that the wrongfully convicted "deserve reasonable and adequate compensation that is up-to-date with current standards."
"This law had not been updated for 16 years, so it was past time that we did so to ensure people who endured this real-life nightmare get the help they need," she said.
Between October 2007 and September 2012, New Jersey settled 20 wrongful-imprisonment cases for $2.2 million, according to "informally obtained" information from the state Attorney General's Office cited by the Office of Legislative Services in a fiscal analysis of the bill.
The National Registry of Exonerations, a project run by Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law, lists 16 exonerations in New Jersey since 1989, including one this month: Gerard Richardson, who was convicted of murder in 1995 in Somerset County and exonerated through DNA evidence.
In May, when Christie conditionally vetoed the bill over objections to certain provisions, he said in a statement that he strongly supported "providing proper redress for those who are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned."
"Our criminal justice system must be vigilant, fair, and just," Christie said in the veto message.
In sending the bill back to the Legislature, Christie struck a provision tying the award to the Consumer Price Index.
He also required that people who pleaded guilty be barred from receiving compensation, saying it was not justified to compensate defendants "who contributed to their convictions" by pleading guilty. Lawmakers consented to the changes, and the bill went back to Christie's desk this month.
Paul Cates, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, said the group believes defendants who plead guilty but are found to be wrongfully imprisoned also should receive compensation. In 9 percent of the 314 DNA exonerations tracked by the group since 1989, defendants pleaded guilty, Cates said.
"A lot of people get afraid and take a plea," sometimes after receiving bad advice from an attorney, he said.
Still, Cates said, the bill is a "great step forward for New Jersey."