Legislative update: Week 3, January 16-20

The beginning of this legislative session has been a refreshing change of pace for the ACLU, with most testimony and lobbying work focused on supporting good bills that aim to reform the criminal justice system and streamline the operations of the Office of the Public Defender. This week will be an important one for many of the reforms supported by the ACLU.

Supported by the ACLU:

HB 77 – Revise public defender system to provide for a director hired by the governor

HB 77, sponsored by Rep. Randy Brodehl (R), will provide a much needed overhaul to the management structure of OPD, providing for a director hired by the governor with input from the OPD Commission. It would also streamline some administrative responsibilities within the department. Hopefully, along with a provision requiring an interim study on the case loads of Montana’s hardworking public defenders, this bill will go a long way in relieving some of the burden on the OPD system.


SB 64, SB 63, SB 60, SB 59, SB 65, SJ 3

This large package of bills, all carried by Senator Cynthia Wolken (D), is the result of the interim work of the Commission on Sentencing. The bipartisan commission exhaustively studied our criminal justice system and, specifically, how Montanans cycle in and out of Montana prisons, jails, and correctional supervision (probation and parole). Democrats and republicans worked together to craft solutions, resulting in the bills listed above.

This package would professionalize the parole board, reform supervision of offenders to encourage treatment and reduce recidivism, and move more low-level offenders toward supervision before ever having to enter the prison system. Additionally, it would implement the use of risk-assessments during the pre-trial phase, increase housing options for the formerly incarcerated, and mandate a study to determine the feasibility of sending tribal members back to their tribal communities to complete the conditions of their sentences. Does this seem like a lot to you? It is – and we are excited to support each piece of this important package.


HB 148 and HB 149-Protecting digital privacy

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R) has been a consistent champion of privacy rights for Montanans during his tenure as a legislator. This year, he has re-filed two important bills that the ACLU is supporting. HB 148 would restrict police access to third party databases containing your electronic records. For example, under HB 148, the police couldn’t go to Verizon and ask for all of your text messages without a warrant signed by a judge. It would also require that notice be given to you if/when the government does attempt to access your data (with certain exceptions). HB 149 would ban the use of license plate readers by law enforcement. These readers have been used to mass surveil everything from church parking lots to political conventions – a serious, unwarranted invasion of privacy.


Opposed by the ACLU:

HB 93-Policing-for-profit

HB 93, sponsored by Rep. Garner (R), increases the court surcharge in criminal cases by 50% and earmarks that money the law enforcement academy. This directly ties how many people police arrest to the amount of money the academy receives. HB 93 is policing-for-profit, plain and simple. While the legislature should fund the academy, the funding should come through the appropriations process not on the backs of Montanans who find themselves in court for traffic offenses.

HB 93 is being heard on the House floor Monday, January 17thContact your legislator and tell them to VOTE NO on HB 93.