THE first exoneration by DNA evidence of a person convicted of a crime occurred in 1989. In the following decades, the criminal-justice system has struggled to accept the notion that hundreds of convicted people were actually innocent.
The state Legislature is poised to apologize to the handful of wrongfully convicted people in Washington courts in the way that governments do: writing them a check.
House Bill 1341 would compensate them $50,000 for each year of incarceration and $25,000 for each year of probation or on a sex-offender registry. The House passed it 95-2 earlier this session. The Senate, which is poised to vote on the bill this week, should also pass it with bipartisan support.
Washington is in a minority of states without a law to compensate the wrongly convicted: 27 other states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have already passed such laws.
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This is an overdue reform. It is a check on government power, and a means to help exonerated individuals begin to restore lives ruined when that power is mistakenly applied.
In legislative testimony, Alan Northrup painfully described his lost years parenting three young children while serving 17 years for a 1993 rape he did not commit. Since being released in 2010, he has found an $11-an-hour job. Lacking a credit history, he can’t even borrow money for dental care.
“I have a 17-year gap to explain,” he told lawmakers.
HB 1341’s prime sponsor, Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, crafted a thoughtful bill, which is supported by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. It has tight controls on claims, requiring evidence that the defendant was actually innocent, not freed due to procedural error.
“It’s a check and balance on a system that for the most part works, but there should be acknowledgment when it doesn’t,” said Orwall.
The attorney general estimates the proposed law may apply to 15 cases total. The Innocence Project Northwest, which helped free Northrup, estimates it may apply to just four.
For us, and them, let’s hope it is needed sparingly.