SEATTLE - Alan Northrop spent 17 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. When he was finally exonerated, he received no compensation from Washington state.
Instead, he got a six-figure child-support bill.
Rep. Tina Orwall says the episode illustrates a failure on the part of the state. She’s planning to introduce legislation this week that would recompense wrongfully convicted inmates for their time behind bars, bringing Washington in line with more than half of U.S. states and the federal government.
It calls for giving former inmates found to be actually innocent $50,000 per year in prison, plus $50,000 more for every year spent on death row and $25,000 for every year on community supervision or as a registered sex offender. Other tenets could include providing health care and paying child support obligations incurred by prisoners during their incarceration.
But because of Washington’s dire financial situation – lawmakers are trying to fill a $4.6 billion budget gap – Orwall’s bill wouldn’t allow exonerated inmates to start collecting until 2014.
“The bill is about fairness,” says Orwall, D-Des Moines. “Hopefully the money helps them rebuild their lives. They really need a certain amount of support and resources.”
Northrop says he could use those resources sooner rather than later.
He and his co-defendant, Larry Davis, were identified by a housecleaner in La Center, north of Vancouver, as the men who attacked her in 1993 – even though she initially didn’t pick them out in a photo montage. After years of trying, the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Wash- ington Law School finally persuaded a judge to test evidence, including skin cells taken from under her fingernails, for DNA.
The DNA belonged to two unknown men. Northrop and Davis were freed last year. They’re among 15 people who have had convictions overturned by the Innocence Project’s work in Washington state. Others include Ted Bradford, who was cleared of a rape in Yakima County last year, and James Anderson, who was cleared of a robbery in late 2009; both say they could use some compensation too.
Exonerated inmates can try to sue for damages, but such cases rarely succeed because they need to prove intentional misconduct by law enforcement officials.
When he was released from prison last year, Northrop was told he owed $111,000 in back child support. About half was due to the mother of his children and half to the state, which helped support the family while Northrop was incarcerated.
The state Department of Social and Health Services has a program for forgiving child support bills in hardship cases, and it waived its share of Northrop’s balance in November. But Northrop still owes tens of thousands of dollars to his former partner, and the state is garnisheeing his wages to the tune of $100 per month.
Meanwhile, Northrop is struggling to save up enough money for a car so he can keep his $12-an-hour job at a metal fabrication shop in Vancouver. He lives in Ridgefield with his girlfriend, a former classmate with whom he became re-aquainted last spring.
“They owe us – somebody does,” he says. “I’m struggling right now. I need every penny.”
Lara Zarowsky, a policy staff attorney at the Innocence Project Northwest, worked with Orwall’s office in drafting the bill to compensate exonerated inmates. The payments would match those in the federal law.
The legislation could also guarantee free tuition at state schools for the former prisoners and their children.
“Philosophically, it’s a statement to the community that we acknowledge these cases exist, and when they do we’re going to have safeguards in place to protect these people,” Zarowsky said. “We need it in terms of making a statement about what our society values.”
During a recent symposium on the topic at the UW Law School, Northrop’s codefendant said the only work he’d been able to find in the past eight months was three days in construction.
“I’m one step away from holding a sign up that says ‘Will work for food,’ ” Davis said. “It’d sure be nice to have some help.”