Wrongful convictions

Coloradans should be surprised to learn that prisoners wrongly incarcerated in Colorado prisons are released, perhaps after years, with no more than their jailers’ regrets. In some cases, they have nothing at all to build on to return to a productive life on the outside.

An Associated Press story Sunday centered on Robert Dewey, who, after serving 16 years of a life sentence for murder, was released two months ago when a modern-day DNA test showed he had not committed the assault with which he had been charged. Dewey received nothing from the state, no cash nor any job training nor counseling. And, because he had been serving a life sentence, there had been no job training in prison.

As the story includes, he had earned about $13 a month in the prison laundry.

Now, he receives some $200 in food stamps monthly and has been approved for Medicaid for a back injury he sustained in prison.

Dewey’s case could be considered extreme as DNA matching – better yet non-matching – can apply to lesser crimes than murder and thus shorter sentences. But it is understandable to feel that even one day wrongly spent in prison warrants some compensation in exchange.

And the legal organizations that are championing the use of DNA to convince prosecutors to reopen selected cases are understandably most eager to undo the most significant sentences, which includes the death penalty. In priority, DNA testing will most likely exonerate those who have served the longest sentences and who may have received the least prison resources applicable to life outside prison walls.

The AP does report that members of the Colorado Legislature are considering legislation in the coming session that will provide compensation to those who are wrongly convicted. Twenty seven states and the District of Columbia already do that. That seems only right to us.

What the amount of compensation and the breadth and depth of job training and counseling will be will make for some debate, of course, but something must be provided out of fairness.

We would think that compensating those who were clearly wrongly imprisoned would be an accomplishment that would cut across political party lines, whether for similar or dissimilar reasons. It should. Let’s expect legislators to agree, beginning in January, that compensation is the right thing to do.

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