A variety of proposed laws could remove judicial discretion, endanger public safety
Thu, 04/13/2017 - 3:02pm admin
By Lee Cornell / Stillwater County Justice of the Peace/Columbus City Court Judge
Will Rogers is credited with saying, “Common sense ain’t common.”
That saying reminds me of what is currently taking place during this state legislative session in Helena. I have been watching several bills that are somehow designed to make improvements in Montana law. HB 133 is one bills.
HB 133 basically removes jail time as a sentencing option when a person is charged with offenses such as theft, forgery, bad checks and deceptive practices. The sponsor of this bill says that jails are too overcrowded and that this bill is meant to reduce jail populations.
Apparently, his belief is that jail overcrowding is due to misdemeanor offenders being sent off to fill all of the county jails. This is total nonsense and a look at local jail populations statewide would indicate that state inmates, and persons charged with felony crimes, are clogging up the jails.
I have to admit that, as a matter of public safety, I would rather see violent felons in jail rather than persons charged with misdemeanor crimes. But people who steal from innocent victims also have to be held accountable. The only way to ensure that restitution is made to the victims is for the court to have the option of sending defendants to jail if they are not willing to pay restitution to their victims. HB 133 is a bad bill that further victimizes crime victims and Rep. Forrest Madeville, R-Columbus, voted against it on its second reading.
Interestingly enough I was reading about a legislator who was planning to introduce a bill that would “update” the state landlord tenant laws. Basically, this legislator from Billings was wanting to make it a criminal offense for someone to move out of a rental property without giving notice to the landlord. The landlord could have the tenant charged with theft and then the court could order restitution. When I read this I looked and saw that this legislator had voted for HB 133 on second reading.
Now follow me here, the Billings legislator voted for a bill that makes it impossible for courts to collect restitution for victims and then introduces a bill that would criminalize a civil landlord tenant matter so that landlords could somehow get court-ordered restitution!
I sent an email to this legislator and asked her how the court could order restitution on a theft case involving landlord tenant laws if HB 133 (which she voted for) passed. I really didn’t expect, nor receive, much of an answer to this question.
I then read HB 613, which Col. Tom Butler of the Montana Highway Patrol thinks is a great piece of legislation. Col. Butler likes this bill so much that, instead of having it introduced in the House Judiciary Committee, he had it introduced in the House Transportation Committee, which interestingly enough is chaired by a representative who is also a MHP captain. Basically, this bill is being introduced as a way to “update” the 24/7 DUI program in Montana.
Now, I am not completely against a program that is designed to keep our roads safer. But this program is just one tool that courts may use to assist with DUI offenders. There are several things that are wrong with HB 613, but I am going to mainly point to just one and that is mandatory jail time as a sanction for a violation of the program.
Okay, now let me get this straight: The jails are all full and so the legislature thinks it’s a good idea to decriminalize numerous crimes so misdemeanor offenders aren’t taking up valuable bed space in local jails (HB 133), but now the sanction for a positive breath test in HB 613 is being sent to jail.
I have not seen where there is money anywhere in the bill to build additional jail space, so where exactly are courts going to put these people?
Another issue is that this bill takes away all judicial discretion and forces the courts to utilize the 24/7 program. Common sense tells me that being forced to put people into jails that are already full is going to be fairly difficult.
As I write this, I am reading over SB 280, which is yet another bill being introduced on the Senate side to update the DUI laws of Montana. This bill not only takes away judicial discretion by forcing courts to utilize the 24/7 DUI program, but it also has a provision built into it that would allow the vehicle being driven by someone intoxicated to be seized – no matter who owns it.
Without several amendments, this bill is also a failure and needs to be voted against. Sen. Dave Howard, Rep.-Park City, voted against this bill in its second reading. Our delegation is voting wisely on bills dealing with public safety, but they are certainly in the minority. With time left in this session, perhaps common sense will prevail.