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April 6th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Wrongfully convicted of rape and incarcerated for 17 years, a Washington State man owes the state $111,000 in child support for the time he spent behind bars.  Read about it here (The Columbian, 4/3/12). 

Back in 1993, a woman was raped in the town of La Center.  She described the attacker and police produced a composite sketch that looked like Alan Northrop.  The woman didn’t identify Northrop from a photo array, but she did when he was placed in a lineup.  The police arrested Northrup, a prosecutor tried him, a jury convicted him and a judge sentenced him to over 23 years in prison.

But Northrop always maintained his innocence.  He tried everything he could think of to get someone to take his appeal, but no one would.  That went on until 2001 when an experienced criminal lawyer with the Innocence Project in Northwest Seattle, Jacqueline McMurtrie, saw all the holes in the case and decided to fight for him. 

It took her five years to get a judge to order DNA testing.  (Why that wasn’t done at trial in 1993, I have no idea.)  Astonishingly, it took four more years to get the results back.  That was 2010, 17 years after his original conviction, but the results showed that Northrop was innocent, as he’d claimed all along.

Today at age 46, he’s a free man, struggling to come to terms with the world outside his prison’s walls.  A lot has changed since 1993, and Northrop isn’t finding it easy to adapt.  He’s managed to get a low-wage job, but business is hard and the company keeps laying him off.

But that’s not the worst of it.  Before he went inside, Northrop had a girlfriend and three little kids.  The kids are now grown up.  He missed all of that. 

To add insult to injury, the State of Washington is demanding $111,000 in child support from him.  Apparently, his wife must have received welfare payments and, according to the law, the father of children who receive AFDC or TANF must reimburse the state. 

But of course in Northrop’s case, there’s a problem with that concept.  Northrop was a responsible dad before he went to prison, and the state put him there for a crime he didn’t commit and never confessed to.  In other words, it’s the state’s fault that the state is out the money it paid to Northrop’s wife.

But to the state, that makes no difference.  It paid his girlfriend and he’s required to pay the state.  Period.  Ironically, responsibility for his inability to support his kids doesn’t matter.  You’d think it would, given the fact that the stated reason for child support is that parents should take responsibility for their kids.  That’s sound reasoning until it’s the state that’s responsible for keeping a dad from supporting his children.  Then the concept of responsibility vanishes into thin air.

Of course that’s not the only thing the State of Washington doesn’t take responsibility for.  It also doesn’t take responsibility for wrongfully convicting a man of rape.  Unlike many other states, Washington has no scheme to compensate the innocent who are convicted of crimes.  So Northrop is faced with a double whammy.  He not only has to pay the state $111,000 that it never would have spent if it had jailed the right guy, but it refuses to do the honorable thing and compensate him for the 17 years of normal life he whiled away behind bars.

One thing those compensation schemes accomplish is that they encourage states to expedite procedures that prove innocence.  That’s because the longer an innocent person languishes in prison, the greater the compensation the state is required to pay.  In Northrop’s case, the State of Washington managed to drag its feet for nine years on the simple task of getting a DNA test done.  How much of the child support money it claims Northrop owes was accrued during those nine years?

And of course, how much did it cost the state to incarcerate him for that time?

At this point, I wonder if Northrop feels like he’s back in prison.  Oh, it’s a different sort of prison; it doesn’t have the concrete walls and razor wire; the food is better out here and the days not quite so regimented.  But it’s 17 years later; times have changed and he’s struggling to stay employed and every minute of every day, Alan Northrop has got to know that jail for child support debt is just around the corner.

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