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Senate Bill 1584, debated in the last week of the legislative session, is smart economics and the right thing to do.

For most people, the idea of spending years of their lives locked up behind bars for a crime they did not commit is the stuff of nightmares. However, in Oregon, wrongful convictions continue to dramatically impact the lives of innocent people. That is why 38 local business leaders like myself are calling on lawmakers to pass the Oregon Justice for Exonerees Act (SB 1584) in the 2022 legislative session, which would bring Oregon in line with 37 other states, Washington, D.C., and the federal government.MALEK

Exonerees are released from prison without many of the life necessities we take for granted: money, job prospects, housing, transportation and health services or insurance; and they then become obstacles themselves. Without a work history, a residential history or a steady income, exonerees are left with little — if any — opportunity to secure independent housing. Finding a job with a decades long work gap is both difficult and daunting, and when they do find opportunities, background checks and outdated databases often pull up the crimes for which they were exonerated with no clarification about their innocence.

Take, for example, the case of Earl Bain in Malheur County, who was exonerated in August 2020 after spending six years in prison for sexual abuse he did not commit. Mr. Bain, an Afghanistan army veteran, received a rare pardon from Gov. Kate Brown on the grounds of innocence. But his wrongful conviction and incarceration imposed many costs and hardships on his family. While he was able to clear his name with the help of the Oregon Innocence Project, he has still not received any compensation from the state of Oregon.

SB 1584 would compensate wrongfully convicted Oregonians for the time they spent incarcerated and under state supervision. This bipartisan bill was drafted in collaboration with the state Department of Justice as well as exonerees as a vehicle to provide much-needed financial justice to people who desperately need help.

The Oregon Justice for Exonerees Act leans on best practices developed in other states, including neighboring Idaho, by providing $65,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment with additional money for years spent wrongfully on parole, probation or the sex offender registry. Exonerees who are found eligible by a court can also receive non-monetary services like housing assistance, counseling or health care. The legislation also seals records associated with the conviction while providing a certificate of innocence from the state, so exonerees can clear their names and finally move on with their lives.

Removing financial barriers for exonerees will provide them with the stability to pursue good-paying jobs, education and training, which will allow them to provide for their families, achieve economic security and participate more fully in our state's economy. I believe I echo the business community at large when I say it is important that we take a stand on this issue to ensure we actively create a culture and society we are proud to call home.

In a perfect world, no one would ever be wrongfully convicted. Unfortunately, the reality is that wrongful convictions occur in every state including Oregon. Since 1991, 21 innocent people have been exonerated in Oregon, 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.

To be clear, while the economic consequences of wrongful convictions are devastating, no amount of money will ever make up for what was taken from Oregon's innocent. But we will be a better state when we admit our wrongs and take steps to make amends — ensuring all citizens can contribute to the full extent of their abilities.

Kim Malek is the CEO and co-founder of the Portland-based Salt & Straw Ice Cream.


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