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Montana House advances bill to compensate wrongly-convicted people

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 10:21 AM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 12:23:22-05

HELENA — The Montana House has given initial approval to a bill that would provide compensation for people who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned.

House Bill 92, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Kathy Kelker of Billings, passed 93-7 in a preliminary vote Thursday.

“The purpose of this bill is twofold: It’s to protect Montana from having to pay millions of dollars in court settlements – that’s always a possibility – and to do the right thing for innocent persons who have unjustly lost their freedom, families, jobs and reputations,” said Kelker.

The bill was requested by the Law and Justice Interim Committee last year. It would apply to people who are found not guilty after a retrial, have the criminal charges against them dismissed or receive a pardon on the grounds that they were innocent. It would set up a procedure for those people to have their convictions expunged and to receive damages from the state.

Exonerated people could claim $60,000 for every year they were wrongly imprisoned, plus $25,000 per year for time spent on parole or probation or as a registered sexual or violent offender. They could also receive additional support, such as housing assistance, tuition assistance or medical insurance.

If someone who claims this compensation later sues the state and wins or reaches a settlement agreement, they would be required to repay the money they received under this program, except for their attorney fees.

Some lawmakers, like Republican Rep. Jedediah Hinkle of Belgrade, voted for HB 92 despite having concerns about that provision. Hinkle had supported an amendment to remove the exception for attorney fees, which failed in the House Judiciary Committee.

“The reason why I supported the bill and others supported the bill is because we do believe for an individual in this type of situation, whose life has been ruined, they do need to be compensated and made whole,” he said. “However, the amendments were made to somehow try and protect the taxpayer in this.”

But Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican from Billings, said a number of other states have adopted similar laws, and only about 10% of exonerated people ended up suing the state after receiving compensation. He argued the state would end up paying more through lawsuits if they didn’t set up a program like this.

“That lawsuit could have taken ten years – for that person that we wrongfully convicted and put in our prisons, it could take them ten years to get that money,” said Usher. “They have no skills, they don’t have a family like all their friends have – we took all that away from them by wrongly convicting them. What the intent of this is, is to get money in their pocket so they can go to school, so they can create a new career, they’re not going to be a ward of the state.”

HB 92 was reassigned to the House Appropriations Committee because of its fiscal impact. If the committee approves the bill, it will return for a final vote on the House floor before going to the Senate.