States Grapple with Compensation Laws for Boom in Exonerated Convicts

DNA testing technology has led to a boom in discovery of wrongful convictions.

April 26, 2011— -- One year after DNA evidence exonerated Alan Northrop, who had served 17 years in prison for a rape and kidnapping he didn't commit, he's still waiting for the state of Washington to compensate him for its mistake.

"It's really great being out, but I'm struggling too," Northrop said in an interview. The 46-year-old father of three left prison with little money, no job and stunted emotional and technical skills. And even though he's found work at a metal fabrication shop, he says he's barely making ends meet.

"They just let you go and that's that. No apology. No nothing," he said. "They need to make it right. It doesn't matter what the state deficit is. These are innocent lives that have had a lot of years taken away and they need to make it right so we can get going again."

Northrop's case is among a skyrocketing number of wrongful convictions of the innocent discovered over the past decade with the evolution of reliable DNA testing technology, experts say.

Now, many states, which face looming budget deficits and competing fiscal priorities, are grappling with how to respond to the trend.

Between 1989 and 1999, there were 66 exonerations by DNA evidence alone, according to figures compiled by the National Innocence Project, a legal advocacy group. In the decade since, there have been 203 more.

Twenty-three states, including Washington, don't offer any financial compensation for the wrongfully incarcerated. In the 27 states that do, the reparations vary widely.

"It's a real patchwork," New York-based Innocence Project policy advocate Rebecca Brown said. "States had been addressing the cases piecemeal with private bills because maybe only one or two people were coming out every few years. But as time goes on, we're seeing that this is really a systemic problem and there is a great deal of wrongful convictions. A more comprehensive framework needs to get worked out."

Texas, which has the most thorough compensation program in the country, awards $80,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, plus $25,000 per year spent on parole or as a registered sex offender. The state also provides an annuity and support services.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire offers a maximum $20,000 for the entirety of a wrongful conviction. Utah awards the monetary equivalent of the average annual salary of the state's non-agricultural worker. And Montana only provides the wrongfully incarcerated with educational aid.

Northrop and other exonerated individuals from states without compensation laws are left to lobby their state legislatures for a private bill to solely compensate them, or file a civil suit in court. Both are difficult and costly steps, advocates say.

"You're in no man's land if you're in a state that doesn't have a compensation law and you don't have an incredibly strong civil suit," Brown said.

President George W. Bush signed into law in 2004 a requirement that wrongfully convicted federal inmates should receive up to $50,000 per year spent behind bars, or $100,000 per year if the time was spent on death row.

Advocates for the exonerated want those figures to be a minimum level of compensation in states nationwide. But it won't happen quickly.

"It's pretty clear that the biggest impediment is state budgets," said Jackie McMurtrie, director of the University of Washington Law School's Innocence Project. "We got lots of support philosophically, from both sides of the aisle. But then people said, 'How are you going to pay for it?'"

McMurtrie said it's difficult to forecast how much a compensation law could cost a state each year. If a compensation law were implemented in Washington, the state would likely have to immediately compensate between 10 and 12 recently-exonerated innocent individuals, she said.

A 1996 study by the Ohio State University Criminal Justice Research Center estimated that about 10,000 people in the United States are wrongfully convicted of serious crimes every year, largely because of eyewitness misidentification.

Northrop and Larry Davis, another man convicted in his case, were both falsely picked out of a police line-up by a woman who had been attacked, blindfolded and raped, while working as a housekeeper in La Center, Wash., in 1993.

Bills to compensate the wrongfully convicted are pending in several states, where the debates have broadly highlighted the tension between fiscal effects and the political reality.

Draft legislation in Washington State, which would have provided up to $20,000 per year to Northrop and other innocent individuals wrongly imprisoned, failed to pass a Senate committee this year. Supporters hope it will receive a renewed push next year.

"These people have suffered more than any of us can imagine, on every level," said Brown. "The horror of prison when you're wrongfully convicted is just a new level of injustice. And, obviously, we ought to do everything we can to make people as whole as we can."

Brown says she's hopeful Michigan may become the 28th state to implement a compensation law later this year.