Advocates for the wrongly convicted are urging lawmakers to establish compensation for years spent in prison unjustly. And those lawmakers should listen.

Representatives of the Innocence Project – a national effort to overturn convictions of innocent individuals – testified before a Legislative interim committee earlier this week. The project has successfully overturned many convictions using more recent technology – such as DNA testing. Project representatives argued before the committee that the wrongly convicted are due some compensation for years spent in prison away from work and family.

Under current law, someone found to be innocent after conviction and imprisonment is offered educational help. Montana is one of 35 states to offer some help to these prisoners on release. But of the 35, Montana is the only one that doesn’t offer some kind of cash compensation.

Innocence Project representatives are urging the wrongly convicted be compensated $50,000 for every year spent in prison. That’s a good starting point for debate. There have been high-profile cases where victims of injustice successfully sued states and won seven-figure settlements. But that kind of litigation can be very expensive and take years to resolve. And there are no guarantees of a favorable outcome when these cases go to trial.

There are not a lot of cases where convictions are overturned years or even decades later. But there are some. The state is involved in litigation over several of these cases right now.

Some will argue the state has no responsibility for what a jury decides to do in these cases. But state government includes the justice system. And the state should take some responsibility when things go wrong.

It’s difficult to imagine what those wrongly imprisoned for long periods go through. There are lost career opportunities, damage to relationships with loved ones and a lasting stigma that can make it very difficult to adjust to life outside prison.

Some form of financial compensation is appropriate in these cases. And lawmakers should take up the issue when they meet in 2021.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Don Beeman, community member
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Sarabeth Rees, community member
  • David Swingle, community member

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