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Oregon lawmakers pushing to compensate people wrongfully convicted, imprisoned

Senate Bill 499 calls for exonerees to receive $65,000 for every year they were behind bars.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Lisa Roberts spent 12 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. She missed her only child's high school graduation. She missed the birth of her first grandchild.

"And the worst of all, I missed spending time with my mother before she passed away," Roberts said.

As if it couldn't get any worse, Roberts says she lost everything when she was in prison. And after she was exonerated, she struggled to find a stable, good paying job.

"I was completely reliant on friends and family and supporters to help me when I tried to rebuild my life," she said. 

What Roberts shared in a public hearing Wednesday is unthinkable for most people, but help may be on the way in the form of Oregon Senate Bill 499.

The bill would give people who are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, $65,000 for every year they were behind bars and up to $25,000 for every additional year served on parole or supervision. The bill also calls for records to be expunged.

More than 30 states, including the federal government and District of Columbia, already have compensation legislation. Most average about $50,000 per year. A few states like California stipulate an amount per day like their $140 a day...which works out to about to $51,000 for a full year behind bars. Look up other states here.

"When people are in prison and they're innocent, often their best earning years have been obliterated," said Sen. Kim Thatcher. "This bill rights a wrong and offers assistance to people who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned and help them get back on their feet."

Senate Bill 499 also gives the court the right to offer wrongfully convicted and imprisoned people financial help for counseling and housing assistance. Critics of Senate Bill 499 do not necessarily trust the court to handle that. They are calling for a criminal justice reform commission to be established.

"We need civil rights, human rights leaders who are known and respected the governor can appoint and have them be the listening body, the oversight body," said Lucinda Hites-Clabaugh, who was wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing a child in Woodburn in 2009.

Regardless of how Senate Bill 499 may or may not be tweaked in the coming weeks, Roberts believes it is a step in the right direction.

"It's more than just financial security," she said. "The ability to receive compensation is also about the state acknowledging it made a mistake and taking responsibility for that mistake."

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