HELENA — The state of Montana has exonerated 15 people wrongfully sent to prison since 1997, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Some of them have sued the state for millions of dollars.

Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, said the state has a responsibility to rehabilitate wrongfully incarcerated people.

“It really is a terrible sentence for someone who’s done nothing wrong,” Kelker said.

Kelker is the sponsor of House Bill 92, which seeks to create a fund to compensate those people for their lost time. The Senate Finance and Claims Committee voted 15-4 Thursday to pass the bill to the full Senate. The bill passed the House of Representatives in February. The Senate also gave it preliminary unanimous approval before referring it back to committee earlier this week.

The fund would pay out $60,000 to innocent people for every year spent behind bars and another $25,000 for every year spent on probation. Exonerated people could receive up to $80,000 per year.

Under HB 92, the state would have saved $9,240,000 in the exoneration case of Paul Jenkins and Freddie Lawrence according to Amy Sings in the Timber, who spoke on behalf of the Montana Innocence Projects. Both men spent 23 years in prison.

The bill also says that if a person receives compensation from the fund, they can’t sue the state. However, if they sue the federal government and win, they have to pay whatever money they’ve received from the program back to the state.

The bill has one more vote in the Senate before it’s sent back to the House of Representatives.

James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. james22bradley@gmail.com twitter.com/jayx15a

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