Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Piling on Injustice

March 18, 2008

The Daytona Beach News-Journal Daytona Beach, FL

Restitution proposal mocks the wrongly imprisoned

It took Florida many years to admit that it had mistakenly incarcerated several men for crimes they didn't commit. The advent of DNA evidence forced the state to face that reality, and they finally approved a law that gives inmates access to scientific testing that might help establish innocence. But the state is still dragging its heels on the issue of restitution, forcing each exonoree to go hat in hand to the Legislature. Wilton Dedge, who spent 22 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, had to make the rounds in 2005. Allen Crotzer, exonerated in 2006 after being cleared of two rapes and an armed robbery, did the same in 2006 and 2007 -- and still hasn't been compensated.

It's a humiliating display, not as much for the men who were unjustly convicted -- but for Floridians, whose officials close their ears to legitimate cries for justice.

Other states have put an end to this mockery by establishing a simple, nearly automatic process that compensates people who are wrongfully convicted. Most use a formula that multiplies the number of years spent behind bars with a specified sum, ranging between $20,000 to $100,000. Some add benefits such as university tuition, counseling or health care.

This year, the Legislature had a shot at setting up a similarly easy, fair and evenhanded process. But as bills work their way through House and Senate committees, something has gone badly wrong.

Instead of making compensation automatic, HB 1025 (as amended last week by the House Safety and Security Council) now calls for a laborious hearing process in which a judge must determine the innocent person's "earning capacity" and the need for mental health or substance abuse counseling.

These calculations would be highly speculative (and complex, requiring far more than the $1,000 in legal fees the bill would allow in a restitution case). Such a proceeding would be cruel and intrusive, forcing an innocent person to recount years behind bars, deprived of family contact, subject to assault and governed by the myriad small humiliations that constitute daily life in a state prison. There's nothing of restitution in this bill; lawmakers are attempting to convert simple justice into grudging dismissal.

But there's a far worse provision -- one that would prevent many exonorees from claiming any justice at all. The bill would deny compensation to anyone with another felony conviction -- any felony conviction, no matter how minor or unrelated.

Under the provisions of this bill, Crotzer would receive nothing -- because while in prison, he was convicted of a drug offense. But Crotzer spent 24 years behind bars, not the single year and a day the drug offense would have merited. He missed the chance to see his children grow up, or to say goodbye to his mother, who died while he was imprisoned.

Is that not a mistake, in the state's eyes? Is it not a miscarriage of justice?

"In no other context do we treat victims like this," says Jennifer Greenberg, policy director of the Innocence Project of Florida.

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss SB 756, that chamber's version of the compensation bill. Senators should resist any change to comform to the deeply flawed House bill. Meanwhile, House leaders should work to restore balance to HB 1025, also scheduled for a hearing today in the powerful Policy and Budget Council.

A compensation bill should put justice first, not drive the innocent into the darkness of a bureaucratic court process -- where their plight can't embarrass lawmakers. Instead, lawmakers are considering legislation that compounds the wounds of injustice, in the name of healing them. They should say no to such hypocrisy.

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