Lawmakers grapple with Columbus Day name change, death penalty

By MICHAIL SIEBERT

UM Community News Service

University of Montana 

School of Journalism

 

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 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. 

“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 individuals are 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 who 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.

 

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 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 present 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.

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