A bill to compensate people wrongfully incarcerated isn't everything that justice would have demanded, but it gets us part of the way there. Passed by the Legislature on Tuesday and sent to Gov. Charlie Crist, the measure should be thought of as a first step. A "clean hands" provision that denies automatic compensation to those with any prior felonies means that the reform will have limited reach. But the hope is that future revisions will open the compensation door wider.
There has been a bipartisan, multiyear effort to get the Legislature to enact a comprehensive system of compensation for inmates whose actual innocence is established — something more common in the era of DNA testing. Now a bill has finally passed, and despite its flaws, the governor should sign it into law. He has said in the past that it is "important to have a plan across the board" that provides for people wrongfully incarcerated.
The current system, in which innocent people who were wrongfully convicted have to file an individual claim bill and get it through the Legislature, is highly cumbersome and inefficient, often taking years and relying on media attention and legislative arm-twisting to pass. The new system would provide $50,000 for every year an exonerated prisoner spends behind bars, along with a waiver of college tuition costs. The award is indexed to keep up with inflation.
But there are also significant downsides to the legislation. According to Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, the "clean hands" provision means that only two of the seven remaining exonerated inmates in Florida would qualify for compensation. Men like Larry Bostic of Broward County, who spent 19 years in prison for a rape and armed robbery that DNA evidence proved he did not commit, are out of luck. He has four prior felonies.
And had Alan Crotzer not gotten a separate claim bill passed this session that granted him $1.25-million for the 24 years he wrongfully spent behind bars, he would not have qualified either. Crotzer once stole beer from a store as a young man.
Another concern about the bill is that it allows prosecutors to object to compensation even after the person has been exonerated by the courts. As Miller says, the added layer of process is "gratuitous" and "puts (those exonerated) through a little extra misery."
Being wrongfully imprisoned makes one a victim of a state-sponsored injustice. The point of compensation is to redress that wrong, and a prior criminal record should be irrelevant. But that kind of clarity was a little too much for the Legislature this year. We hope future lawmakers will make the needed adjustments in the interest of justice.