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Wrongfully convicted could get assistance

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Rep. David Litvack thinks prisoners who are convincingly cleared of their crimes deserve some help to get back on their feet.

"We've all seen 'The Shawshank Redemption' and remember that line where 'everyone is innocent in prison,"' said Litvack, D-Salt Lake.

But Litvack told the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee that his bill, HB154, is only concerned with those convicted of felonies who are clearly found to be innocent.

The bill, which passed out of committee with unanimous support Friday, would create an assistance program for those who are wrongfully convicted, spend time in prison and are later exonerated. Under the bill, the wrongfully convicted would receive the equivalent of an average worker's salary for every year they spent behind bars.

To be eligible, the convicted person must be declared innocent by a judge. Someone who is in the country illegally or who was serving time for other crimes would not qualify.

"We're not talking about someone who is going to be found factually innocent on a technicality," Litvack said.

He said HB154 is the product of careful consideration and review.

Assistant Attorney General Creighton Horton, who helped craft the legislation, said the bill would impact a tiny number of individuals.

Litvack told the committee he is troubled that felons who are out on parole receive government aid while the handful of people who are exonerated don't.

Horton sees irony in that as well. "If one of us gets caught up in this kind of a circumstance (wrongful conviction), we are in effect a crime victim.

"There's no way we could adequately compensate somebody for spending two or three years in prison for a crime that he didn't commit," Horton said. "You couldn't pay me enough money to spend a week at the state prison."

Horton said the money isn't compensation, but rather assistance that will help the wrongfully convicted to become self-sufficient.

The bill has the support of the state Association of Prosecutors and the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, as well as several criminal defense groups.

Jensie Anderson, president of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, an organization that seeks to clear the wrongfully convicted, said those who are exonerated have often had to miss out on key parts of their lives.

"In some ways exonerees face greater struggles in entering back into society than those who have actually been guilty of crimes," Anderson said. "They're coming out of prison not trusting the system, the police, the prosecutors, the folks they've trusted all along."

Now HB154 moves to the House floor for further consideration.

E-mail: smansell@desnews.com