Wednesday, 26 March 2008

For wrongfully incarcerated, 'clean hands' is dirty pool

Imagine having been convicted of a major felony and spending 20 years — that's more than 175,000 hours — knowing that you didn't do the crime and hoping and praying the truth eventually will come out.

Finally, miraculously, you're cleared. DNA evidence, most likely, is what would have determined your innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Meantime, whatever might have been left of your life when you went to prison is probably gone. Certainly whatever you might have made of your life is probably gone, too, or at least long delayed. Like starting a family.

Doesn't the state owe you something?

Most public policy issues involve a fair amount of gray. But there's little gray when it comes to state policy regarding payment of compensation to a person who has been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for a crime he never committed.

Florida lawmakers, in the wake of several recent cases involving former inmates whose innocence was proven by DNA testing, are debating how wrongfully imprisoned people should be paid for the time they spent behind bars.

Currently, such inmates can be compensated only if a special claims bill on his behalf passes the Legislature. The current debate is whether, and how, to standardize the process. That serves the cause of justice especially because technological improvements are certain to increase the number of cases of imprisonment that are proven to be in error.

Alan Crotzer, formerly of Tampa, formerly a guest of the Florida Department of Corrections for 24 years, now a resident of Tallahassee, almost made it to the finish line last year when he sought $1.25 million. But his claims bill, after being passed by the House, died in the Senate.

Mr. Crotzer is back again this session, and Gov. Charlie Crist is prominently in his corner.

But while his bill is given excellent chances of making it through this year, other legislation designed to comprehensively address the problem has already gotten traction — but deserves to be derailed.

The so-called "clean hands" provision in House Bill 1025 would prohibit automatic compensation for wrongfully convicted inmates if they had a previous felony on their record. Ex-prisoners who fit that description would have to go through the legislative claims process similar to the one that Mr. Crotzer is navigating for the second consecutive year. The process "retraumatizes" the former inmates, an advocate for them said earlier this month, forcing them to grovel and, in their minds, reprove their innocence when science already has done that.

If "clean hands" becomes law, it would actually keep the state's hands dirty. If you spend time in prison for a crime you didn't commit, the state should pay you back — and not hold your compensation hostage for something unrelated. Our judicial system has always worked that way, not bringing forward to a jury information about previous rap-sheet behavior not related to the charges at hand.

No question, automatic compensation might be politically difficult to accept in some cases and this year's debate may be just the beginning of reckoning with fairness issues in this era when DNA science trumps human judgment. And of course, wrongfully convicted inmates are not always altar boys. But if they have been convicted of and served their sentences for previous crimes, they ought not be held accountable forever for crimes that it has been proven they did not commit.


No comments: