Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Fair compensation

Don't make the innocent beg for justice

Alan Crotzer deserved better treatment from Florida's criminal court system. He spent 24 years in prison for a rape and robbery he did not commit. And when DNA evidence finally freed him, he deserved better than the treatment he got from the state. He had no job skills, no way to support himself, little help with readjusting to a life outside of a concrete cage.

Crotzer deserves better treatment from the Florida Legislature. In the spring session, he'll appear in committee rooms to tell his story and ask for compensation. The state has already taken away a significant chunk of his life -- when he was sentenced, Crotzer had every reason to think he would die behind bars. The state took his chance to watch his daughter grow up. The state took his chance to say goodbye to his mother.

The state shouldn't take his dignity as well. Nor should it deprive other men and women who may be exonerated.

Money can't make up the horror an innocent person feels after walking into prison for the first time, or repair the gaps in an unjustly interrupted life -- but it can provide the means to build a new life with what's left. It's tough to train a former inmate to sleep through the night or to stop looking over his shoulder, but the state can -- and should -- give exonerated people access to counseling programs designed to ease their transition back into society.

Years in prison can have a marked impact on a person's physical health -- the state should help with health care. For many innocent prisoners, the world has changed dramatically since they were last free -- the state should provide assistance with simple tasks like opening a bank account or driving a car.

For the third year running, lawmakers have a bill before them that would provide just compensation and aid for people freed from prison after proving their innocence. The proposal is relatively modest: $100,000 for every year spent wrongly incarcerated, plus tuition at a state university or college. Lawmakers should add provisions for health care and transition services -- as many states have done -- and then approve the legislation, making it easier for people who are exonerated to start the process of getting their lives on track. Twenty-three states already have similar laws.

In previous years, this legislation has run aground on petty issues. Some lawmakers insisted that people who are exonerated after pleading guilty or no-contest shouldn't be eligible for compensation -- but innocent is innocent, and many people plead guilty to offenses they didn't commit in exchange for more lenient sentences. Other legislators quibbled about the amount: Last year, the bill proposed $50,000 a year for compensation. Either sum would be fairer than the current system, which requires each exoneree to go begging to the Legislature.

Gov. Charlie Crist and Senate President Ken Pruitt have said they support justice for Crotzer, and for those who will follow him. Other leaders should follow suit. It's shameful that lawmakers have taken this long to act, and they should wait no longer.

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