In Our View: State's 'Oops' Carries a Price

Compensating wrongfully imprisoned people is the least we can do

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Tucked way back on the fourth of six pages of the official report for House Bill 1341 is this phrase: "Washington is a national leader in equality and justice.

"It is strange, then, that our state is one of about 23 that do not compensate people for wrongful convictions. For example, Alan Northrop, formerly of Clark County, served 17 years in state prison for a rape he didn't commit. If he had been treated that way in 27 other states, or by the federal government, he would be paid up to $50,000 (depending on the state) for each year of the government's ghastly mistake.

Fortunately, our state is on the brink of proving that — on this issue as well — we really do believe in equality and justice. On Friday, HB 1341 passed in the state House by an overwhelming 95-2 vote. (Among the listed sponsors is state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver. All representatives in Clark County's three main legislative districts voted for the measure.) Friday's vote was a milestone; similar measures failed to make it out of committee in 2011 and 2012, for inexplicable reasons.

Fair-minded Washingtonians should hope state senators follow the example set by the House. To further ignore this issue would be appalling, especially after such a tremendous show of approval in the House. (No one testified before a House committee in opposition to this bill.)

Would passage create much of a financial burden for taxpayers? Not really. There are only three "DNA exonerations" in Washington, according to the bill report, plus two or three dozen other cases in which it might apply. The fiscal note attached to the bill says there's no way to predict the cost because of the many variables such as number of claims and years served.

But the moral cost of doing nothing would be high. We are better than this. Last year, Northrop said in a televised CNN story: "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."

We can only imagine.

The bill calls for restitution of $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment (including time spent awaiting trial), plus $50,000 per year on death row. Each year spent on parole, in community custody, or as a registered sex offender after a wrongful conviction would result in compensation of $25,000.

Are these figures fair? When applied to oneself, they seem incredibly low. As explained by another passage on the fourth page of HB 1341: "Nobody would trade a year in prison for $50,000." But the payments are typical across the country, match compensation in federal cases, and are recommended by the Innocence Project, a group that works to free innocent prisoners. Additionally, the bill approved by the House would require the state to pay all child support owed during wrongful imprisonment, and all legal fees.

How much is your life out of prison worth? Fifty grand a year, according to HB 1341. As inadequate as that payment might seem, it would be a huge improvement over the status quo, which is nothing.