Washington State Proposes Compensation for Wrongly Convicted

Currently 23 states do not provide compensation for exonerated felons.

Jan. 29 —, 2011 -- The day Alan Northrop's rape conviction was overturned -- the day an innocent man walked out of prison after serving 17 years for a crime he didn't commit -- is the day the state of Washington considered its debt to him paid.

"I got no apology, no nothing, no offer of any kind of financial aid," Northrop said.

With no job, no training, and no work experience save for the time he spent working in the prison kitchen for $55 a month, Northrop was released with only a few dollars to his name. He owed more than $100,000 in back child support he had been unable to pay while incarcerated, and had to move in with his brother because he could not afford a place of his own.

It is Northrop's case, along with those of three other men recently exonerated in the state, which inspired Washington State Senator Jim Hargrove to co-sponsor legislation that would compensate the wrongly convicted.

"They have lost opportunities in training, they get out and they have nothing, don't have much of their lives left in some cases," Hargrove said. "Having some resources to get started so they can get on with their lives is the right thing to do."

Hargrove's bill would pay those found to be innocent up to $20,000 per year for each year they spent behind bars, including time spent waiting for trial. Washington is one of 23 states that do not currently provide such compensation, according to the National Innocence Project. Most of the other 27 states and the District of Columbia pay a set amount per year served to those later found to be innocent.

The federal government awards $50,000 per year in prison to the wrongly convicted, plus an additional $50,000 per year served on death row. The Innocence Project would like to see this become the national standard. The Washington State bill falls far short of that.

"We tried to figure out, if you were on minimum wage as a full-time employee, that's how much you would have made," Hargrove said. "We tried to bring them up to that amount."

"Something you Can't put a Price on"

But for Northrop, who entered prison at age 29, that's not enough. When he learned the proposed figure, his immediate response was, "$20,000 per year, that's it? No, that's not even close."

"This is something you can't put a price on, no matter how much it is," he continued. "My daughter was 5 [when I went to prison]. Now my daughter's 22 and I have a 2-year-old granddaughter."

Northrop was convicted of rape in 1993 after a woman picked him and another man out of a police line-up as the two who had attacked her while she was working as a housekeeper. Northrop was sentenced to more than 23 years in prison, of which he served 17 before being cleared by DNA evidence. The other man convicted in the case, Larry Davis, was also found to be innocent.

Northrop has since found a job paying $10.80 an hour at a metal fabricator -- it used to pay $12 an hour but he was forced to take a pay cut when the company fell on hard times. And his paycheck is garnished $100 a month for that back child support. The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services has forgiven half his child support bill, but he still owes more than $50,000 to the mother of his three children.

"Struggling Big Time"

"When you start getting into the question of how to compensate someone, it's hard to answer," said Lara Zarowsky, a policy staff attorney with the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic at the University of Washington. "We have these people who are actually innocent, and they're really struggling … It's hard to get a job for anyone, and especially for someone who has to explain a 17-year gap in employment history."

Hargrove's bill is scheduled for a hearing in the state Senate committee he chairs on Feb. 1. Northrop plans to testify in favor of the legislation -- because even if he doesn't think $20,000 per year is enough, it is more than he has now.

"I could really use it right now," Northrop said. "I'm struggling big time."