HELENA — A bill to compensate those imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit is stalled in a Montana legislative committee, as supporters try to address concerns about its potential cost.
House Bill 92, referred to the House Appropriations Committee a month ago, faced some tough questions last week from Republicans on the panel about its cost.
After an amendment to attach a $700,000 appropriation to the bill failed on an 11-12 vote last week, with Republicans opposing it, Democratic Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter of Billings asked the panel to table the bill for now.
Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, the sponsor of HB92, told MTN News Friday she’s not sure when the bill may be revived – although she thinks it should be.
“If we don’t find some (money) and set up a system, I think we’re just going to get skunked in court,” she said, referring to lawsuits for damages filed by those wrongfully imprisoned.
Supporters have said that HB92, which would pay a pre-determined amount of money to people who’ve been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, could dissuade people from suing the state.
And, even if they do collect a claim under HB92 and still end up filing suit, they must pay back the claim from any damages they would win in a lawsuit.
Still, some Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee questioned whether the state is responsible to pay for such claims and whether it could become a much more expensive proposition than predicted by its supporters.
Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, noted that a similar law in Nevada has paid out $6 million in claims in the past year or so, and suggested that Montana doesn’t really know how much the program could cost here.
SK Rossi, representing the Montana Innocence Project, a supporter of HB92, said Nevada is paying compensation at a much higher rate than Montana, and that only seven people in Montana appear to be eligible for possible claims right now.
Under HB92, a claimant would have to file a claim within three years of being exonerated and prove his or her case in court. They would be entitled to $60,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment and $25,000 for each year they were on state supervision outside of prison.
In most cases, the money would be paid out in a partial lump sum and an annuity, which would make future yearly payments.
Montana has paid only one large settlement for wrongful conviction -- $3.5 million to Jimmy Ray Bromgard in 2008. However, insurers for the Montana Association of Counties recently paid $6 million each to Freddie Joe Lawrence and Paul Jenkins, who were exonerated in 2018 after spending 24 years in prison for a Helena-area murder they didn’t commit.
Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, another Appropriations Committee member, asked why the state should be compensating people, when the errors in prosecution may be made by county officials.
“I don’t see any mention being made of why the state would be on the hook financially for something that might be outside our realm of responsibility,” he said.
Rossi said county attorneys, who prosecute crimes, get their power from the state.
“County attorneys are not prosecuting county laws,” Rossi said. “They are executing state laws on behalf of the state.”
Jerry Marble, who, along with his son, Cody, have been one of the key supporters of HB92, told MTN News he can’t understand why lawmakers would refuse to compensate those who spent years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
Cody Marble was released from prison five years ago, after a 14-year battle to clear his name after being convicted in 2002 for a rape he says never occurred.
“How could they be so heartless and insensitive?” Jerry Marble said. “This is an opportunity to be a win-win for the state. If someone wins their lawsuit, the state gets the claim money back.”