Innocence Project Northwest Fights for the Compensation Bill in Washington

From Seattle Weekly:

The Innocence Project Tries Again with Wrongly Convicted Compensation Bill

 By Matt Driscoll Wed., Feb. 6 2013 at 8:00 AM

As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

 Thwarted during the last two legislative sessions in an ongoing attempt to push a bill through that provides financial compensation for the wrongly convicted, the Innocence Project – with help from its local, University of Washington-affiliated chapter and sponsor Rep. Tina Orwall (D – Des Moines) – have gotten back on the horse, championing HB 1341. If passed the legislation would require the state to dole out payments to those who were unjustly convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.

The bill is scheduled for a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday, with advocates planning a rally at the Capital Building in Olympia to coincide with the event. But much like was the case in 2011 and 2012, the bill’s ultimate fate is likely tied to something far more straightforward than public support and rallies – how much it will cost.

If the bill becomes law, a wrongly convicted person who can prove their innocence would be entitled to receive $50,000 per year of incarceration from the state. They’d also be eligible for $25,000 per year served on parole, in community custody, or as a registered sex offender. Third-year University of Washington School of Law student and Innocence Project Northwest clinic member Caroline Bercier says the payouts are modeled after federal legislation approved by George W. Bush. 

In addition to the cash, the bill also would provide access to reentry services for the wrongly convicted and grant tuition waivers for state higher education institutions for their dependents.

As mentioned, similar bills have been introduced in the past  – but they’ve all failed to gain traction thanks to fears over its cost in a budget-strapped sessions. In this year’s version, according to Bercier, a provision that required the wrongly convicted to receive the same health benefits as state employees has been axed to help save money, and the burden of payment has been shifted to the state. Though the Innocence Project is still waiting for the Office of Financial Management to complete  the bill’s fiscal note – which will provide lawmakers with a breakdown of how much the state thinks the legislation would cost to implement – Bercier says she and others are hopeful the budgetary math will break differently this time around.

“You never know until you see it,” says Bercier of the bill’s pending fiscal note and what it might say.

“It comes down to the budget,” she continues when asked whether lawmakers will be more likely to support this latest effort. “They see it as a new program that’s going to have to be funded every year.”

On that front, Bercier says the bill’s advocates are doing their best to allay fears. She points out that it would be far cheaper for the state to pay the wrongly convicted under HB 1341 than for counties to continue to be sucked into costly civil lawsuits – where payouts are typically in the millions. She also notes that the bill includes a provision that prevents double payouts. If a wrongly convicted person successfully petitions for payment under HB 1341 and also wins a civil suit against a county, they’d be required to pay back whatever sum is smaller.

Bercier says the number of people eligible to receive payment under the proposed legislation is miniscule; the Innocence Project Northwest estimates there are currently fewer than ten eligible people in the state, though possibly as many as 15. Either way, she says, the number of people who could apply for the payments on a yearly basis is tiny, and in all likelihood years would go by without a single approved claim.

At the moment, according to the Innocence Project Northwest four of its clients could directly benefit from HB 1341. Ted Bradford was wrongly incarcerated for 10 years. Larry Davis was wrongly incarcerated for 17 years. Alan Northrop was wrongly incarcerated for 17 years. And James Anderson was wrongly incarcerated for four years. Paying out all of these men for their years behind bars would cost the state roughly $2.4 million – a total which could easily represent the cost of one civil suit.

There are currently three civil suits of this nature against pending Clark County alone.

More important than the money, paying these people for the years they spent wrongly convicted, according to Bercier, is about righting an egregious wrong.

“It’s not a partisan issue. This is about justice and liberty,” says Bercier.

“The legislature is their last hope.”

While Bercier is optimistic that this year’s effort will meet a different fate than previous attempts, she admits there are still significant hurdles to jump. Confident that HB 1341 will make its way out of the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, the bill will still need to receive a hearing from Appropriations Committee before ultimately being put to a floor vote.

“If we don’t get scheduled for hearing [in Appropriations], we’re pretty much dead,” says Bercier, noting there’s less than a month to make that happen.

The bottom line is, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle hesitant to sign on to a bill that will need to be paid for somehow, it may once again be an uphill battle. As you may have heard, money is tough to come by these days, and politicians are increasingly hesitant to spend it. Predictably, though the bill has 17 co-sponsors, so far it has received no support from Republicans.

Bercier says if the bill is to be successful, this will have to change.


Read the coverage of the hearing here.

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