In California, an innocent person wrongly accused of a sex crime still can find his/her name on the state’s sex offender registry. Worse, the person has no way to get their name removed. The state provides no procedure for having one’s name removed from the registry in the case of actual innocence.
The state has been sued successfully by the innocent and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled the absence of such a procedure a violation of federal civil rights statutes. Still, the state allows the situation to persist.
In a slightly different vein, over half the states in the nation now provide compensation for innocent people wrongfully imprisoned for criminal offenses. Prove your innocence, get exonerated by a court and you qualify for compensation from the state that wrongfully imprisoned you. That seems fair.
The only problem is that many states provide no such compensation. There, it’s prove your innocence, get exonerated by a court, step out on the street and you’re on your own with no work skills and a huge gap in your work history. Good luck.
That’s how it is in Washington State, about which this article is written (Seattle Times, 1/16/11). But the article includes a special twist.
It begins with Alan Northrop. He was falsely accused, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced for rape. He was innocent, but that didn’t prevent him from doing 17 years in prison. And when he got out the State of Washington basically said “So long; it’s been good to know ya.”
Now, Northrop can sue the state, but, depending on the facts of his case, winning may be anything from hard to impossible. That’s why states create automatic compensation schemes.
But at least he’s free and able to try to put the pieces of his life back together, right? Not exactly. That’s because Northrop has a child and every minute he was behind bars was a minute that child support arrearages were building up and up.
So, with little ability to earn a living and a six-figure indebtedness to his ex, Northrop might as well have stepped out of prison, turned on his heel and stepped back in.
When he was released from prison last year, Northrop was told he owed $111,000 in back child support. About half was due to the mother of his children and half to the state, which helped support the family while Northrop was incarcerated.
The state Department of Social and Health Services has a program for forgiving child support bills in hardship cases, and it waived its share of Northrop’s balance in November, within a few hours of receiving an inquiry from an Associated Press reporter. But Northrop still owes tens of thousands of dollars to his former partner, and the state is garnishing his wages to the tune of $100 per month.
The good news is that Washington State Representative Tina Orwall has filed a bill with the legislature that would establish a compensation scheme for innocent people wrongly convicted and imprisoned. It would pay former inmates $50,000 per year for every year served with special consideration for death row inmates.
It would also require the state to pay child support arrearages. Of course in Northrop’s case, that wouldn’t do much to benefit his child who is at least 17 by now, but it would benefit the mother and Northrop.
Meanwhile, Northrop is struggling to save up enough money for a car so he can keep his $12-an-hour job at a metal fabrication shop in Vancouver. He lives in Ridgefield with his girlfriend, a former classmate with whom he became re-aquainted last spring.
“They owe us – somebody does,” he says. “I’m struggling right now. I need every penny.”
Larry Davis, who was wrongfully convicted along with Northrop added,
“I’m one step away from holding a sign up that says ‘will work for food,'” Davis said. “It’d sure be nice to have some help.”
In this country, it’s fashionable to talk about the virtues of individual responsibility. I’m all for that. But I think the concept should extend to organizations, corporations and states too. In Northrop’s and Davis’s case, the state did a terrible wrong; it deprived of liberty two innocent men. It also deprived Northrop’s child of his/her father and his support.
The least the State of Washington can do is take responsibility for its own errors, just like the rest of us. Rep. Orwall’s bill would make it do just that.
Thanks to John for the heads-up.