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Oregon Should Pay Compensation to the Wrongly Convicted

Guest blog by:
Kim Thatcher
Thatcher, R-Keizer, represents Senate District 13 in the Oregon Legislature.

Earl Bain was going through a difficult divorce after returning from his tour of duty in Afghanistan when he was wrongfully convicted by a nonunanimous jury for sexual abuse. Despite no physical evidence against him, Earl spent six years behind bars and was forced to register as a sex offender after his release in 2019.

Last August, he received a rare pardon from the governor. Not only did the witness who accused him of the crime recant her testimony, but even the Malheur County district attorney supported his pardon, as news organizations reported. Just as Earl had insisted all along, he was innocent.

But Earl was not free from injustice. Even after a pardon, Earl was left on his own to pick up the pieces of his life – without anything from the state that unjustly deprived him of his liberty.

In Oregon, exonerees leave prison ill-equipped for life on the outside, with no income for food, housing, transportation, medical care, or psychological counseling. The innocent are not even entitled to the same transitional benefits provided to the guilty when they’re released from prison.

Why?

Unfortunately, Oregon is one of only 15 states in the nation that does not offer its wrongly convicted citizens any financial compensation to help them rebuild their livesaccording to the Oregon Innocence Project.

In fact, the only way for exonerated Oregonians to obtain financial justice is to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the government entities that contributed to the wrongful conviction. These lawsuits usually take years to resolve and do not help the exonerated when they need it most.

A law providing a fixed amount of money per year for wrongful incarceration is the first step that would allow the wrongly convicted to receive the assistance they deserve — quickly — from the system that failed them.

That is why I am introducing SB 499, which would provide wrongfully incarcerated Oregonians with monetary compensation for each year they lost behind bars for something they did not do. My bill will also provide access to non-monetary services like housing assistance and mental health counseling. And the compensation will come with a certificate of innocence, so exonerees like Earl can have their full rights and privileges restored – such as the hunting license Earl still can’t get because of his criminal record.

This is not a novel idea. Thirty-five states, Washington, D.C. and the federal government (for people wrongly convicted in the federal system) provide compensation to exonerees, with the majority providing at least $50,000 in monetary compensation for each year the innocent person was wrongly incarcerated. It’s time for Oregon to join this list.

And the need is great: since 1991, 21 innocent people have been exonerated in our state, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The “lucky” ones were wrongly sentenced to probation for drug crimes they didn’t commit; the unlucky ones collectively spent nearly 90 years behind bars before proving their innocence.

There is no way for Oregon to replace the years it took from these exonerees. They’ve missed birthdays and funerals, family milestones and career opportunities. We cannot give Earl back the time he lost with his young daughters, but we must do what we can to help him and people like him start over.

This, for sure, is a small price to pay for wrongfully convicting someone and depriving them of their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. When that happens, we as a state, a society and as citizens have an obligation to make it right

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