State should aid the wrongly convicted

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2014 - 6:37 PM

Minnesota should compensate those who lose years in prison.

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It’s no secret that life can be difficult for an ex-con. Though they’ve paid their debt to society, they often have trouble finding a job and getting readjusted after leaving prison.

Those same problems exist even if a person is released after being found innocent of the crime that sent them to prison. And in Minnesota, the state does nothing to help those who have been wrongly accused, convicted and locked up.

We can do better for those few who are victims of mistakes in the criminal justice system. Last week, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said they are working with the Innocence Project on legislation that would do just that. They will introduce bills during the 2014 legislative session that would compensate those wrongly convicted and help them get their lives back on track. That is the very least the state can do after sending an innocent person to prison.

Currently, 29 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government all have compensation statutes for the wrongfully imprisoned. Minnesota is one of 21 states that do not.

To change that, Latz and Lesch propose giving monetary compensation capped at $700,000, although they acknowledge that the amount may be adjusted depending upon the length of incarceration and how much income is lost. Their bill also would require the state to provide services such as food, transportation, affordable housing, health care, counseling and help with workforce skills.

Two recent examples in Minnesota demonstrate why it’s important to pass compensation legislation. Koua Fong Lee spent nearly three years in prison after being convicted of criminal vehicular homicide. He was driving a car that hit and killed three people. Later it was learned that Toyotas like the one he drove had been recalled for faulty brakes, and his conviction was set aside.

Michael Hansen spent nearly seven years in prison, convicted in the death of his infant daughter, but he was released after an investigation later found that a fall several days before she died actually caused her death.

Both men were thrilled to be exonerated, but they were set free with little more than an apology. Both experienced difficulty resuming their former lives after being released from prison. Too often the punishment from a wrongful imprisonment lingers long after innocence is proven. And there are often psychological consequences that stem from being deprived of family, friends and the ability to build a career.

Neither Lee nor Hansen received compensation for lost earnings, damage to their reputations or time away from their families. They weren’t even eligible for the reintegration services that guilty convicted criminals receive after they serve their time. Latz and Lesch are right: The state has an obligation to try to make up for it when it commits that kind of life-altering error.

It doesn’t happen often. The only known cases in recent years were those involving Lee, Hansen and Sherman Townsend, who spent 10 years in prison before Hamline University students uncovered the person responsible for the home invasion that led to his conviction.

There is always a possibility that mistakes can be made during a prosecution and trial. Evidence can be misleading and uncertain. An accused person could be poorly defended. New DNA information can become available following a conviction. Even sworn eyewitness accounts have been found to be inaccurate and have led to locking up the wrong person.

That’s one reason the Editorial Board opposes the death penalty. At least when the wrongfully convicted are imprisoned, there is a chance for a new trial and a new start if new evidence emerges.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 1,356 people have been put to death in America for criminal convictions. And since 1973, more than 140 people have been released from death row because they were found to be innocent.

Fortunately, Minnesota is one of 18 states in which the maximum sentence is life in prison. That’s good public policy. Now the state has a chance to take another positive step and pass legislation to compensate those who are wrongly convicted and jailed.

  • DOING THE RIGHT THING

    ‘‘It doesn’t happen often, but we have a system of human beings and we make mistakes. … While there is no amount of money that can give back the years spent behind bars as a result of a wrongful conviction, it is appropriate for government to step up and at the very least offer compensation to help them get back on their feet. ”

    Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee.

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