Montana Legislature Week 6: Death penalty, voter IDs, child sex abuse, deadbeat dads

Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula

By Michael Siebert/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA – A bill that would have abolished the death penalty in Montana was narrowly voted down in committee last week on a 9-10 vote.

House Bill 366, sponsored by Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, would have replaced a death sentence with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Hertz said the bill represented productive use of tax dollars, a pro-life philosophy from “conception until natural death,” and the notion of an offender’s redemption for their crimes.

“I cannot in good conscience claim to be pro-life and support a system that takes innocent life at the heavy hand of a government in an imperfect justice system,” Hertz said.

The bill saw support from many interest groups, including from the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

Betsy Griffing, an attorney and former head of the Death Penalty Task Force at the Montana Attorney General’s Office, said the entire process of prosecuting and executing inmates comes with significant financial impact.

Griffing said death penalty cases require two prosecutors and two defense attorneys, as well as numerous expert witnesses, all of whom are paid by the state. There is also a federally mandated appeals process, which she said can stretch across decades.

Ray Krone, co-founder of Witness to Innocence, a death penalty abolition group, spoke of his experience being sentenced to death for a crime for which he was later exonerated.

“How do you mitigate something you didn’t do?” Krone asked legislators. “How do you show remorse or regret for an act you never committed?”

Krone said the imperfect nature of the legal system, as well as the unreliability of some types of evidence, leaves the potential for inmates to be wrongly convicted — and perhaps even wrongfully executed.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill at the hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

Parents late on child support payments may lose hunting licenses

Parents who fail to make child support payments may soon face a new punishment — not being able to buy a hunting or fishing license in Montana.

Introduced by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, Senate Bill 172 would provide the option to take away conservation licenses from people who are more than six months behind on child support.

Rep. Mike Lang, R-Malta

“Not everyone who is behind on their child support hunts or fishes,” Lang said. “However, those that do will forgo that opportunity until they alleviate their child support obligations.”

Conservation licenses are required as a prerequisite to obtain hunting and fishing licenses. If an individual is in arrears on their payments, they would be unable to purchase or keep this license.

One Glasgow woman said after waiting seven years for payments from the father of her child, she received all of them in full over the course of a year after he was threatened with license suspension.

Chad Dexter, an administrator with the Department of Health and Human Services, said seizure of licenses has been used to collect on child support payments since 1993. Presently, some recreational licenses, as well as drivers and occupation licenses, can be suspended by the department for this reason as well.

“It’s not necessarily a choice whether you can pay,” Dexter said. “It’s a legal obligation that you have for your children.”

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, said she had reservations because of the possibility to negatively impact people who subsist through hunting.

Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Foundation, said he did not believe that should be a concern.

“I would hope that people that need food on the table do not have these child support obligations,” Gevock said. “If you’ve created that deal, you have an accountability problem to work through.”

Lang said individuals incapable of making payments for financial reasons have avenues to work out those problems with the Child Support Enforcement Division.

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not vote on the bill last week.

Columbus Day renaming bill tabled

A bill that would have changed the name of Columbus Day in Montana to Montana Heritage Day was tabled last week.

House Bill 322, introduced by Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point, sought to change the name because of what Smith called a “distorted understanding of history.”

“Why would anyone glorify a brutal man such as Columbus, and in 1932 declare a federal holiday in his honor?” Smith said. “What else was erased from history that would provoke conflict among Americans?”

Smith said students are taught an inaccurate history of Christopher Columbus. She said the Spanish explorer should not be celebrated for his violence against the indigenous peoples of the islands of Hispaniola.

She said Columbus Day is a holiday “repeated each year to promote the idea of American exceptionalism at the cost of the truth of American Indian genocide.”

Many Native American lawmakers came to speak in support of the bill.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder

“Later on … when I was talking to my elders, they were telling me that we were always here. We weren’t discovered,” said Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder. “There was a life, a way of life that existed on this continent.”

Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, said she would have supported renaming Columbus Day something similar to “Native American Day,” as South Dakota does, instead. However, she did not believe it would be able to pass committee with that name.

When Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, asked if renaming the holiday would take away the ability to reflect on the history of Christopher Columbus, Smith said she felt the name change would bolster that discussion.

Smith said renaming the holiday would promote inclusivity.

“Montana Heritage Day can be a source of pride which unites us,” Smith said.

Child sexual assault education proposed for elementary students

The Montana House Education Committee heard a bill last week that would allow schools to implement programs educating elementary students about child sexual assault, as well as set up response and reporting policies.

House Bill 298, introduced by Rep. Edward Greef, R-Florence, would take effect by July of 2018.

“Children in the age group of 6-12 years are often going unheard and undetected,” Greef said. “School is a safe zone for them, and the teachers are their friend.”

Tara Walker Lyons, who approached Greef about drafting the bill, spoke in strong support.

“This crime doesn’t discriminate,” Lyons said. “It happens everywhere in every neighborhood, in every state in our country, in every country on earth. [The bill] would not only educate our children about keeping their bodies safe, it would undoubtedly change the course of their lives.”

Several families affected by childhood sexual assault testified in support of the bill, including several victims, some as young as ten years old. One said she would have known it was OK to tell someone about what happened to her if she had been taught about it in school.

Many of the bill’s supporters said the majority of offenders are someone the victim knows, and schools often present the only place where a child can feel safe enough to talk about problems at home.

“Our children are most vulnerable within their family units,” said Kirsten Schmitt, prevention coordinator for Emma’s House, a Hamilton-based advocacy group for abused children. Schmitt said children are vulnerable in part because parents rarely talk to their children about body safety, and are often unclear how to report or talk about the abuse.

The House Education Committee didn’t take immediate action on the bill last week.

Bill would require photo ID to vote

The Montana House State Administration committee heard a bill last week that would require voters to present photo identification in order to cast their ballots.

House Bill 357, introduced by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, was met with strong opposition from nearly 10 people from various organizations.

Skees said the bill’s intent was to protect against voter fraud, but was unable to name any examples of fraud being prosecuted in Montana. He said Granite County photocopied ballots after running out, and a photocopied ballot should not have qualified.

“The assertion that there isn’t fraud in Montana is false,” Skees said.

Opponents of the bill said it would adversely affect a numerous different groups, including students, the disabled, the elderly, single parents and the poor.

Though the bill provides an exemption for disabled individuals for whom travel is “impossible,” Beth Brenneman of Disability Rights Montana said this does not sufficiently protect disabled people.

“The exception it provides for people with physical disabilities … really does not cover the vast majority of people with physical disabilities in the world,” Brenneman said.

Katie Westhoff, representing the Montana Public Interest Research Group, said many college students do not typically have IDs, and she was unable to vote in her home state because voter ID laws prevented her from voting when she presented a university ID card.

SK Rossi, director of advocacy and policy for the Montana American Civil Liberties Union outlined the process of obtaining a photo ID, noting that in order to obtain it, individuals must prevent a social security card or birth certificate. Rossi noted that getting these forms of identification requires a photo ID.

“You shouldn’t have to run through hurdles and track down documents, especially if you’re over the age of 65, especially if you’re disabled, in order to exercise your constitutional right to vote,” Rossi said.

Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.