HELENA, Mont. — Montana should offer financial compensation for people who are exonerated of criminal charges after spending years in prison, advocacy groups and exonerees told a legislative committee.

“While there’s no way to replace years that wrongfully convicted people lost, the state must at least provide compensation to help them build a future,” said Frank Knaak, the executive director of the Montana Innocence Project.

The state Law and Justice Interim Committee heard testimony Monday as part of a study on the issue that could lead to legislation during the 2021 session.

Montana offers educational aid for people who are exonerated as a result of DNA evidence, but no cash payment for the loss of their freedom, potential earnings and career growth.

Michelle Feldman with the New York-based Innocence Project suggested paying exonerees at least $50,000 a year for each year they served in prison and setting reasonable eligibility requirements to apply for compensation.

Currently, exonerees must pursue claims for civil damages, which can take years to litigate and can be costly, Feldman said. Supporters say having a compensation policy would get people the financial aid they need more quickly and save money.

Jimmy Ray Bromgard, who spent 15 years in prison before being exonerated of a 1987 rape charge, received a $3.5 million judgment. Under the proposed policy, he would have received $225,000 upon exoneration and still could have pursued a civil lawsuit. Feldman recommends that civil awards higher than the state payment be used to repay the state for its compensation. Such offset provisions exist in five states, she said.

Richard Raugust, who spent nearly 18 years in prison before being exonerated in a 1997 killing, filed a $97 million claim against the state in July.

Recommended for you