The state Legislature last week passed a resolution to examine how it might set up monetary compensation to support those wrongfully incarcerated upon their release.
House Joint resolution 36, which passed through the Senate on Thursday following a 34-16 vote, requests an interim study for appropriate compensation for the wrongfully convicted. The results of the study will be presented to lawmakers at the 2021 Legislature.
Frank Knaack, executive director of the Montana Innocence Project, said Friday the bill is a huge step for Montana — the only state of 33 that have victim compensation statutes that doesn't provide financial support after release.
"This is huge," he said. "We have 14 people who have been exonerated in Montana since 1989. The state has done nothing, absent the cases where there's been civil litigation."
Montana's current statute offers education opportunities for those released after wrongful conviction, but other states that have laws to address such situations have chipped in with compensation between $5,000 per year and $200,000 per year. Knaack said he believes $50,000 is the sweet spot Montana should aim for next session.
"There's a lot that Montana can look to now to build a compensation statute that's adequate for those it wronged," he said.
The resolution, carried by Rep. Joel Krautter, R-Sidney, makes fiscal sense, too, Knaack said. With no compensation coming from the state, the only recourse is civil lawsuits to try to make up for lost wages, emotional distress and false arrest. Defending themselves from such lawsuits can cost counties millions — $2 million, in the case of a Nebraska lawsuit — and that's before damage amounts are awarded.
Such is the case for Cody Marble, a man whose 2002 rape conviction was overturned two years ago. Earlier this year he sued those who put him in prison, including former Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg and former Missoula County Chief Criminal Deputy Attorney Karen Townsend, now a judge. The amount is not specified but the plaintiffs ask for damages "in order that such an award will deter similar proscribed conduct in the future."
"I spent half my life, essentially, in prison for a wrongful conviction," Marble told the House Judiciary Committee in February. "But there's a major question: Now what? All the time I was gone and serving time in a wrongful prison sentence, my friends were going to school, the military, exploring life, this and that. And I wasn't."
One possible source for the compensation funds, added by the same committee, is the bonds of public employees who were directly involved with the wrongful convictions, as well as the county and state agencies that prosecuted the case; rather than the general fund.
Knaack said he's looking forward to finding that compensation source in 2021.
"Next session is where it really, really matters to getting a bill to provide compensation," he said. "But this is a huge first step for us."
Sign up for our Crime & Courts newsletter
Get the latest in local public safety news with this weekly email.