The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill Friday that would allow a person who’s been wrongly convicted and incarcerated to receive compensation from the state.

House Bill 92 establishes a new process for someone who’s been wrongfully convicted to argue their innocence by making their case before a jury in the district court that originally convicted them. If they can prove by “a preponderance of evidence” that they did not commit the crime they are convicted of, they would be eligible for several forms of recompensation. 

If exonerated, they would be given $60,000 for each year they were in prison and $25,000 for each additional year they were on parole or probation. Other benefits paid to the exoneree include reimbursement for attorney fees and trial costs. They would be entitled to one year of state-funded health insurance and two years of tuition assistance that could be used at any campus in the Montana University System.

In addition, they would be issued a certificate of innocence. All records pertaining to their conviction and arrest would be expunged. Bill sponsor Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billing, said this would help the exonoree move on.

“It’s like the whole thing is erased in all the places where it might make a difference for that person as they’re starting a new life,” Kelker said.

Arguing for the bill, Kelker said it’s the right thing to do from both a moral and a fiscal perspective. She said the state tends to see one such exoneration case about every other year, and HB 92 could save the state millions of dollars from settling cases pertaining to wrongful conviction in civil court. 

The measure came out of research conducted by the Legislature’s Interim Law and Justice Committee, which consulted with law enforcement and county attorneys before drafting the bill.

There was considerable discussion on Friday as to whether the law should include a provision preventing an exonerated individual from seeking further damages in federal or state court. An amendment to that effect narrowly failed.

While speaking in opposition to that amendment, House Judiciary Committee Chair Barry Usher, R-Billings, said it might make the bill unconstitutional. He added that wrongfully convicted people often aren’t interested in long, drawn-out civil cases. The process outlined in HB 92 is designed to be much faster, he said.

Speaking on behalf of the bill before the committee’s vote on Friday, Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula, said he has represented a client he’s certain was wrongfully convicted, and that it weighs on him daily. He said it pains him to think about how that person will be deprived of their freedom and time with their family for “essentially the rest of their life.”

He said he thought the bill was a good start, but that it “doesn’t go far enough.”

The measure will now go before the full House for a second reading.

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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...