By Niki Zupanic ACLU of Montana Public Policy Director
ACLU in Action
The Legislature was sworn in on Monday afternoon and wasted no time in starting to hear bills. Within days, committees began holding hearings and ACLU of Montana Executive Director Scott Crichton and ACLU of Montana Public Policy Director Niki Zupanic testified to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on bills related to the Office of Public Defender, jail suicide prevention, and inmate reentry programs.
House Bills 43 and 69 would create statewide jail suicide prevention programs. Over the last decade, Montana's jail suicide rate has increased to more than eight times the national average. The Law and Justice Interim Committee (LJIC) has studied and discussed the issue for more than five years, without passing legislation or appropriating funding. HB 43 and HB 69 were developed and approved by the LJIC over the last interim. While the bills provide different types of resources to local governments and rely on different funding sources, we supported both bills' efforts to give local detention centers tools to help reduce jail suicides, such as grant funding for suicide smocks and bedding, video monitoring, training, and assistance with the development and use of a suicide risk assessment instrument. We do, however, prefer the funding mechanism in HB 43, which would make an appropriation from the general fund, rather than the new surcharge created in HB 69 that would be assessed on many people convicted of certain crimes. The House Judiciary Committee has not yet taken action on these bills.
We also supported HB 68, which creates a reentry program task force within the Department of Corrections and appropriates $500,000 per year for reentry programs. Evidence from other states shows a proven track record for programs that prepare and support inmates as they reintegrate after serving their sentences. Such programs assist inmates and significantly reduce recidivism. The House Judiciary Committee has not yet taken action on this bill.
We supported two bills sponsored by the Office of Public Defender (OPD) and shared informational testimony on a third. SB 53 would remove the possibility of jail time for certain non-violent misdemeanor crimes. In addition to alleviating OPD caseloads, this bill would also take a small step towards addressing over-incarceration and jail overcrowding. Senate Judiciary has yet to take action on this bill.
We also supported HB 92, which would remove the requirement that a public defender participate in drug and mental health specialty courts. While we can see the value of the state providing an advocate in those courts, the statute required OPD representation even in cases where the defendant was not indigent. More importantly, these court programs are more akin to a sanctions proceeding rather than an adversarial proceeding. We supported this bill as a means to limit the scope of OPD representation to cases that implicate a 6th Amendment right to counsel.
We provided informational testimony on another OPD bill, HB 93,which would allow OPD to negotiate flat-fee contracts for some of its civil caseload. We explained to the committee that we strongly oppose the use of flat-fee contracts for criminal cases, but have no position on their use for the OPD's civil caseload. The House Judiciary Committee passed both bills with a unanimous voice vote.
This Week at the Capitol
Policy committees will continue to be busy this week with hearings on anti-immigrant and anti-choice bills and measures to restrict voting rights. Additionally and the budget subcommittees will start hearings on the budgets for OPD and the Montana Board of Crime Control.
The House State Administration Committee will hear bills to repeal same-day voter registration (HB 30) and to require specific types of identification for voters (HB 108). Both measures were passed in significantly the same form last session and were vetoed. We oppose both measures.
The House Judiciary Committee will hear HB 104, to "criminalize offenses involving the death of an unborn child." We have repeatedly opposed this bill as a misguided attempt to address violence against women, Once again, this bill inserts politically charged language into our criminal code, fails to adequately protect women and providers from prosecution, and leaves women vulnerable to intrusive investigations as part of criminal prosecutions. This bill has been introduced in previous sessions and has repeatedly failed to pass the legislature or has been vetoed. The House Judiciary Committee will hear this bill on Tuesday.
The House Judiciary Committee will also hear HB 50, which would prevent local governments from adopting immigration sanctuary policies. Such policies typically state that the local government will comply with federal law, but will not direct additional local resources to enforcing federal immigration law. This bill goes beyond federal requirements and lessens local governments' ability to decide how to use their limited local law enforcement resources, and we oppose it.