In Our View: Behind Bars, But Innocent

Wrongfully convicted people deserve compensation for what they’ve endured

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Almost a year ago — on April 6, 2011, to be precise — The Columbian applauded Alan Northrop’s testimony before the Washington Legislature in support of a bill that would compensate wrongfully convicted people up to $20,000 for every year they were incarcerated. We also lamented the fact that the bill — which would enable the lawmakers to simply do the right thing — failed to make it out of committee.The frustration for fair-minded Washingtonians was extended in 2012. Once again this year, the legislation (SB 5139 and HB 2221) died in committee. Meanwhile, Northrop is still trying to put his life back together after serving 17 years for a rape he didn’t commit.

What’s new about this story is that it has gone national. CNN featured Northrop’s plight Sunday evening, and our hope now is that the bigger spotlight will compel legislators to come to their senses in next year’s session and do what 23 other states have done: Compensate wrongfully convicted people for time spent behind bars.

Among these innocent people is Northrop, the former Clark County man who was freed from prison on April 21, 2010. (Northrop was the subject of in-depth coverage in The Columbian on April 3, 2011. That story can be found here: http://www.columbian.com/news/2011/apr/03/innocence-project-northrop-freed-rape-prison. Sunday’s CNN story can be found here: http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/25/justice/wrongful-conviction-payments.)

Even when wrongfully convicted people are compensated for incarceration, the emotional and psychological scars last a lifetime. And the hoops through which they must jump just to receive that compensation can be imposing. The CNN story cited a report from the Innocence Project that those who are eligible wait an average of three years to receive the money. And that money is taxed by many states. Payments in various states range widely. The Innocence Project — which works to free innocent prisoners, typically using modern DNA testing — calls for $50,000 per year spent in prison, plus $50,000 for each year wrongfully spent on death row. That seems more than fair to us, and it’s the standard in five states.

Ten states provide social services to these victims of the judicial system. Northrop told CNN: “It’s not all about the money. It’s about possible counseling for certain individuals. … People have no idea what effect stress has on a person in there. … What that does to a mindset is just devastating. Terrible.”

Nationwide, about 40 percent of exonerated prisoners receive nothing for having been wrongfully sent to jail. That’s simply unconscionable.

Northrop is correct when he maintains we have no idea what he’s been through. But here’s something we do know: If this innocent man received $20,000 per year for those 17 years unjustly spent in prison -- as called for in the bills that stalled in Washington’s Legislature -- it would mean $340,000 for Northrup. If he received $50,000 per year as occurs in five states, it would mean $850,000. That would be just a small step toward setting things right after the unwarranted loss that Northrop and others have been forced to endure.