By Scott Crichton ACLU of Montana Executive Director

Senate Judiciary today took executive action on SB 53, Senator Robyn Driscoll’s bill to remove jail time for first-time offenses of certain non-violent misdemeanors, addressing both jail overcrowding and budget shortfalls in the Office of Public Defender.

The Office of Public Defender (OPD) has been chronically underfunded since its inception. Public defenders only have to be provided to defendants if they are facing the possibility of jail time. Quite simply, SB 53 provides one thoughtful opportunity to take some of the pressure off the court and public defense systems by selecting a handful of non-violent misdemeanor offenses and removing jail terms for first-time offenders.

In addition to the impact SB 53 will have on OPD and the courts, it will also have a positive impact on Montana’s county jails. Jails -- where we hold people accused of crimes and waiting for their day in court, and people convicted of misdemeanor offenses for short durations (typically under one year) -- have become overcrowded with first-time offenders jailed for non-violent offenses who could be sentenced in ways better suiting their crimes. This removes many prisoners from that population.

Of course, occasionally a few days jail time may be unavoidable. That's why the bill was amended slightly to allow up to 72 hours in jail for people arrested for disorderly conduct, given the fact that many are arrested on the weekend and won’t go before a judge until Monday.

The vote in Senate Judiciary was unanimous, so the bill will now go to the Senate Floor. We strongly support its passage.