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Oregon Becomes 38th State to Enact Wrongful Conviction Compensation Law

by Mark Wilson

On March 4, 2022, Oregon lawmakersunanimouslypassedSenateBill1584, commonlyknownastheOregonJusticeforExonereesAct,joining37otherstates,Washington D.C.,andthefederalgovernmentinenactingwrongfulconvictioncompensationlegislation.

A total of 35 Democratic and Republican lawmakers ultimately supported the bill that mirrors statutes recently enacted in Idaho, Montana, and Kansas. Under the law, a person may file a claim for wrongful conviction compensation if the person: (1) was convicted and imprisoned on a felony; (2) received a gubernatorial pardon or had the conviction reversed or vacated and the charges were either dismissed or the person was found not guilty on retrial; (3) did not commit the crime for which the person is convicted; and (4) did not commit perjury, fabricate evidence or cause the conviction.

“Just having a conviction overturned is not enough,” said Janis Puracal, including those overturned becauseof a non-unanimous jury verdict. Puracel is executive director of the Forensic JusticeProject, a Portland, Oregon, organization that works with attorneys to exonerate innocentindividuals. “They must prove that he or she is factually innocent,” she continued.

If thepersonproveseachofthoseelementsbyapreponderanceoftheevidence,thecourtmustentera judgmentawardingdamagesof$65,000foreachyearofimprisonmentand$25,000foreachadditionalyearofparole,post-prisonsupervisionorsexoffenderregistration.Theinitialpaymentmaynotexceed$100,000or25% oftheaward,whichever isgreater,withthebalancepaidasanannuitynottoexceed$80,000annually.Thecourtmay,however,orderalumpsumpaymentoftheawardifitfindsthat doingsoisintheperson’sbestinterests.Annualcost-of-livingadjustmentswillbemadetothestatutorycompensationamounts,beginning in2023.

The court must also award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs incurred in filing the compensation claim, reimbursement of all restitution, assessments, fines, court costs, and all other sums paid. Finally, the court may award access to existing local, state, or other programs providing services including but not limited to, counseling, housing assistance, medical assistance, educational assistance, job training, legal services to regain custody of children, food and transportation assistance, and personal financial literacy assistance.

“Whatalotofpeopledon’tunderstandisthatthestigmafromwrongfulconvictionlastsalifetime.They’restillfightingtogetsometolookpastthetimethattheywereinprison,”saidPuracal.“Thecompensationgivesexonereestheacknowledgementthattheywerewronged,andthere’svalue inthatbeyondthedollaramount.”

RepublicanstateSenatorKimThatcher,oneofthebill’schiefsponsorsagrees.SB 1584“helpsrepairsomeofthelosttrustinourcriminaljusticesystemanditinjectsagoodamountofintegrity,”shesaid. “If thestatesays,‘Oops,wewerewrong,’…whatare(wrongfullyconvictedpersons)supposedtodoatthispoint?It’stoughto startfromzero.”

Since1989,anestimated2,900exoneratedmenandwomenweresenttoprisonin America,oftenfordecadesduetosimplemistakes,corruptpoliceandprosecutors,orother miscarriagesofjustice,accordingtotheNationalRegistryofExonerations.Theylostatotalof 26,500yearsoflifetowrongfulimprisonment,costinglocal,state,andfederalgovernments approximately$3billion,theRegistrynotes.Morethanhalfofthemreceivednogovernment compensationaccordingtotheRegistry.

NowthatOregonhasenactedSB1584, just12statesstilldonothavewrongfulconvictioncompensationlaws:Alaska,Arizona,Arkansas,Delaware,Georgia,Kentucky,New Mexico,NorthDakota,Pennsylvania,SouthCarolina,SouthDakota,andWyoming.

Nationally,justunderhalfoftheexonereesconvicted instatesthatdohavewrongfulconvictioncompensationlawsfiledcompensationclaims.About74% ofthoseclaimsweregranted,18%weredenied,and8.9% remainpending,accordingtoa2019George WashingtonUniversitystudy.Sincepassingitslawin2018,Kansashaspaidatotalof$4.2 milliontosixexonereeswhospentacombined75yearsinprison—averageof12.5years each—accordingtotheInnocenceProject.

Puracalestimatesthat13of23existingOregonexonereesmaybeeligibleforcompensationunderSB1584.Collectively,theyspentmorethan72yearsinprisononwrongfulconvictions.Theyhavetwoyearstobringacompensationclaimunderthenewlegislation.

OregonAttorneyGeneral—andformerOregon SupremeCourtJustice—EllenRosenblumsupportedthelegislation. “Thislawwillmakeitpossibletolegallydeterminewho fitsinthiscategoryofwrongfulincarceration,”shesaid.“Oncethatdeterminationismadebythe court,while financialremunerationis justastart,itistheleastwecandotohelpwithre-entrytotheir communities.”  

Source: SB1584,StatesmanJournal

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