This editorial was published by the Post Register of Idaho Falls.
Kudos are due to Rep. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, who has outlined a bill he is drafting that would remove Idaho from the shameful list of states that provide no compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
Ricks is a good man whose conscience was shaken by the revelation that Christopher Tapp spent 20 years behind bars for the murder of Angie Dodge, a crime that he did not commit.
Ricks contemplates offering programs to help the wrongfully convicted transition successfully from the prison environment back into the community in which they belong through job training, education and other assistance, as well as providing automatic compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
It is certainly the case that Ricks’ bill, as he has roughly outlined it, does not go far enough. It is, nonetheless, progress in the right direction.
The amounts contemplated in Ricks’ bill, about $50,000 per year for someone wrongfully imprisoned, doubling that for those wrongfully placed on death row, are quite clearly too small. That’s not even enough, in many cases, to make up for the income an Idahoan would have made over those lost years, when counting in benefits such as employer health insurance and retirement contributions.
It certainly does not compensate for years of lost freedom.
But the first task is to at least do something, to impose some penalty on the state when it commits an act which, had anyone else done it, would be kidnapping — a grave felony carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison. Ricks’ bill has a good chance of being that first step.
Ricks’ contemplated figures are close to those employed by other states with wrongful conviction compensation laws, which gives the bill a much better chance of advancing in the Legislature where a powerful prosecutors’ lobby could marshal a substantial number of votes in opposition. At this point, it is more important to take a first step in the right direction than to push for a perfect bill with little chance of passage.
But lawmakers should keep an eye toward substantially raising the compensation levels in the future so that the wrongfully convicted receive something that at least resembles true compensation.
In addition to substantially raising the level of payment, further improvements would connect the penalty more closely to the individuals responsible for a wrongful conviction by placing their personal assets and estates in jeopardy in order to pay part of the compensation when there is evidence of negligence, rather than simply pulling the money from the overall state budget.
Prosecutors and police must know that this is the proper way to design the law. Every day, when they argue for a sentence higher as a defense attorney asks for a lower one, they invoke the idea of deterrence. Imposing a harsh penalty for burglary will mean that future individuals contemplating breaking into a home will be more reluctant to commit a crime, they argue.
How is it any different in the case of causing a person to be wrongfully imprisoned? The higher the penalty for a wrongful conviction, and the more narrowly it can be targeted at those who caused it, the more it will deter prosecutors from seeking a conviction based on poor evidence, a conviction that may prove to be a grave injustice. Several such cases have occurred in Idaho, with no detectable penalty for those who caused them to happen. By a prosecutor’s logic, that means it’s more likely future wrongful convictions can occur.
In short, lawmakers should back Ricks’ bill as a good start. But, if they pass it, they should not believe that the problem is solved. Much more work will be required for many, many years. Tapp spent 20 years in a tiny cell fighting his way toward justice. Lawmakers with justice in their hearts should be prepared to fight at least as long.