It looks like the Legislature will do right by Alan Crotzer this year. The man who served more than 24 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit may soon receive compensation for all those stolen years. A claim bill for $1.25-million with his name on it passed the House unanimously Wednesday and has the support of the governor.
While this is a positive turn, there is more to be done on the issue of wrongful incarceration. With DNA testing able to demonstrate actual innocence, a reasonable system of automatic compensation needs to be established for prisoners who were undeniably wrongly convicted.
The current process of getting a claim bill approved can take years, requiring lawyers and lobbyists. By taking these cases out of the political arena, the wrongs can be compensated without the need for horse-trading and arm-twisting. And Florida would be following the federal government and at least 21 states that authorize such compensation.
Initially it appeared that lawmakers were moving toward adopting a comprehensive system this session. But they seem to be getting stuck in disagreements over key details. Even so, a reasonably good bill is still possible with some minor compromises on all sides.
Currently, the House and Senate are considering two differing measures. The better one is in the Senate, SB 756, sponsored by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. Joyner's bill, as amended, would grant exonerated inmates $50,000 for every year they spent wrongfully imprisoned. Also, Joyner's so-called "clean hands" provision is laudably narrow. Under it, the only exonerated prisoners ineligible for compensation would be those who, before their wrongful incarceration, had been designated as violent career criminals.
The issue of "clean hands" is a major sticking point. Some lawmakers want to deny redress to anyone with a prior felony conviction — a standard so high that Crotzer wouldn't qualify, since he was convicted of stealing beer as a young man. And Florida's historical wrong against Freddie Lee Pitts and Wilbert Lee, who were improperly convicted of murder and even sentenced to death for a time, would have been only partially set right since Lee had prior felonies.
When the state convicts and imprisons the wrong person, a prior criminal record should be irrelevant to the issue of compensation. But if lawmakers feel that the state must take a prior record into account, then it should only disqualify those who have serious violent crimes in their past, not every felony.
The bill waiting to be voted on in the House, HB 1025, sponsored by Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, has one of those unworkable "clean hands" provisions and would deny relief to anyone with a prior felony. It would also gum up the compensation process for those who do qualify by having a court weigh factors such as the claimant's earning capacity and whether he or she needs drug counseling in determining the level of compensation, up to $50,000 a year.
This extra process is unnecessarily punitive.
Some lawmakers seem to be convinced that this compensation is a gift for good citizenship when it is simply a recognition that the state made a terrible error that ended up costing someone years of his life. It is an attempt to make up for the damage caused.