BOISE — Idaho is one of 15 states that doesn’t compensate people who wrongfully spend years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. That may change, inspired by a high-profile case in Idaho Falls.
“When somebody is sent to prison we take away their most fundamental rights; we take away their freedom. … And all of us can agree that doing so to someone that is in fact innocent is one of the worst things we can do in our society,” Rep. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Ricks’ bill would entitle people to $60,000 a year for years wrongfully spent in prison, $75,000 a year for years wrongfully spent on death row and $25,000 a year for years wrongfully spent on parole. The committee voted without objection to introduce the bill, paving the way for a full hearing later.
Exonerees would have a two-year window to file. They also would be able to seek non-monetary assistance such as health insurance, mental health counseling and assistance with tuition, housing, finding a job and medical expenses. Ricks said people who are guilty and about to be released from prison currently qualify for more services than the innocent.
“They’re essentially dropped off at the side of the street, and we say, ‘sorry,’” Ricks said.
The bill was inspired by the case of Christopher Tapp, who was charged in 1997 with murdering Angie Dodge, after he confessed to helping other men rape and kill her. He gave several names to detectives, none of whom were charged for the murder. He was convicted and sent to prison, but released in 2017 amid concerns his confession had been coerced. In 2019, Idaho Falls Police officers arrested Brian Leigh Dripps after his DNA was found to match samples found at the scene of Dodge’s murder. Dripps told police he acted alone. Tapp’s murder conviction has been officially vacated, and he plans to sue the city.
Under Ricks’ bill claimants would need to apply to a district court for compensation. While the future cost is unknowable as it would depend on the number of successful claimants, the bill’s fiscal note estimates an annualized $45,000 to $123,000 based on the six exonerations that happened in Idaho over the past 30 years, four of whom would likely be eligible. If all four were to apply and get compensated, the maximum impact would be a one-time $3.69 million. But Ricks’ bill would also reimburse the state if any of them win a civil suit, and three of the four have settled or pending civil cases which the fiscal note estimates would reduce the state’s liability by at least $2 million. The bill would create an “innocence fund” in the state Treasurer’s office, consisting of both money appropriated by the Legislature and reimbursements received from civil suits, to pay compensation claims.
Ricks said he worked with people on all sides of the system in crafting the bill, including prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers and advocates for the wrongly convicted. He said people who commit crimes need to be punished, but society needs to take responsibility when the system gets it wrong.
“It’s time for that justice for all to kick in for those who have been wrongfully convicted, and Idaho needs to provide restitution from the state since we’ve gotten it wrong in this case,” he said.