Where were you 22 years ago? What have you done since?

Ricky Kidd is an innocent man who spent all those years in a Missouri prison — and, outrage upon outrage, has nothing to show for it.

Missouri can and must do more for innocent people who have been wrongfully incarcerated. Missourians should demand it as a moral imperative.

Like Kidd, who was released from state prison Thursday after serving 22 years for a Kansas City robbery and double murder he had nothing to do with, the vast majority of Missouri’s exonerated inmates are flatly denied compensation for society having locked them up unjustly.

Ludicrously, state compensation is extended only to the roughly one-third of exonerated inmates who are cleared through DNA evidence. All others, some two-thirds of those wrongfully imprisoned, are ineligible for compensation.

Moreover, law enforcement officers are granted qualified immunity from lawsuits, meaning only their most egregious acts are fair game in a civil case. As for prosecutors, they have absolute immunity from being sued.

Last year, Kansas became the 33rd state to agree to compensate those wrongfully convicted. The national Innocence Project called the Kansas act “one of the strongest laws in the nation providing state compensation for innocent people who were wrongfully convicted.”

First there’s the better compensation: The Kansas law provides exonerees $65,000 for each year of imprisonment. If Kidd had been a Kansas inmate, that would amount to about $1.4 million. If he qualified for compensation in Missouri — which he doesn’t — Kidd would have received a meager $50 a day, or just over $400,000.

Then there’s the help offered to get exonerees back on their feet: Kansas now provides them with social services that include assistance with housing and tuition, counseling, health care and financial literacy. Missouri does not.

Indeed, Ricky Kidd was working with family and friends Friday to somehow piece his life back together, beginning with the cumbersome task of getting IDs.

Nor is there much after-incarceration help for the innocent from the private sector. Thankfully, there is the After Innocence organization based in Oakland, Calif., with ties to the Kansas City-based Midwest Innocence Project that freed Kidd. After Innocence director Jon Eldan told The Star his organization has put Kidd and other area exonerees in touch with free dental care, as well as health and legal services.

Thank goodness for nonprofit organizations such as these, which deserve public support. But with 430 Missouri inmates on the waiting list at the five-state Midwest Innocence Project, more needs to be done. Can society really be content with passing the hat to compensate innocent people we’ve wrongly put in prison?

It won’t be cheap to do it right. By Midwest Innocence Project estimates, Missouri still has 1,200 or more innocent inmates among its 30,000-some prison population. But really — $50 a day? As Midwest Innocence Project Executive Director Tricia Bushnell asks, “Would you put yourself in prison for $50 a day?”

Missouri also must alter the law to extend compensation to all those exonerated, not just those freed by DNA evidence. It’s a cruel, arbitrary and morally indefensible line that leaves two-thirds of those exonerated out in the cold. “Ricky Kidd’s is a case that should really help change that,” Eldan said.

This society — meaning every one of us — owes the wrongfully imprisoned much more than sparse, begrudging or nonexistent compensation for the time stolen from them and the torment put upon them.

And while it’s necessary to protect prosecutors from torrents of frivolous inmate claims, civil immunity must be stripped away in cases of abject prosecutorial malpractice.

Prosecutors rightly have immense power. But it cannot be absolute.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.


About opinions in the Missourian: The Missourian’s Opinion section is a public forum for the discussion of ideas. The views presented in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Missourian or the University of Missouri. If you would like to contribute to the Opinion page with a response or an original topic of your own, visit our submission form.

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