Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Do right by those Florida wronged

A Times Editorial
Published January 29, 2008


The Legislature has a responsibility to address an issue it has kicked down the road for years: compensation for the wrongfully convicted. Lawmakers need to put aside their differences and bring Florida into the ranks of those states that have an automatic system for providing recompense to people wrongly incarcerated - sometimes for decades. It is not just a duty but a moral imperative.

Alan Crotzer is the prime example of why the current ad hoc system is not workable. Crotzer spent 24 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit. Despite witnesses who said he was not near the scene of the crime, Crotzer was convicted of robbing a family and kidnapping and raping a 38-year-old woman and a 12-year-old girl. Another man convicted in the robbery later disclosed to police that they had gotten the wrong man. A DNA test also pointed away from Crotzer.

Crotzer was released from prison in early 2006. But so far, attempts to pass a bill to compensate him have failed. Last year, a claims bill that would have given Crotzer $1.25-million passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

Here is a man who went to prison as a young man and left the state corrections system middle-aged. He missed the years when people normally get an education and put themselves on a career path. The state owes him a chance to have a decent life, and the payment must be substantial enough to begin to redress the wrong.

Crotzer's supporters are committed to getting his claims bill passed this year, but it makes much more sense to adopt a system of guaranteed payment for anyone similarly harmed.

A bill (SB 756) sponsored by state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, would be the right step. It provides exonerated inmates $100,000 for every year of wrongful incarceration. The bill makes it clear that only those who were completely innocent of the offense and didn't aid others in its commission would qualify, and no one formerly designated a violent career criminal would qualify. The bill would also offer the wrongfully incarcerated free college tuition.

In the past, lawmakers have considered legislation that would have prevented those with a prior felony conviction from receiving automatic compensation. But that approach would exclude highly deserving people such as Crotzer, who had a previous robbery conviction when he was 17 years old. Moreover, people with mug shots in the system and a criminal record are simply more likely to be wrongly identified in a rush to judgment.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, says creating some kind of guaranteed compensation system for the exonerated is at the top of his list this year. We also now have a governor who has a strong moral compass on these kinds of issues.

With key state leaders on board, Florida may soon be among those compassionate states that do the right thing toward people it has wronged. Getting this done should be a top priority in Tallahassee.

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