The stairs of the Montana Capitol in Helena, Montana (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).
A legislative interim committee on Tuesday advanced a bill proposal that would harshen penalties for disorderly conduct charges, a move that opponents say will lead to more incarceration of vulnerable Montanans.
The Criminal Justice Oversight Council, which oversees the implementation of criminal justice legislation, adopted the language of a bill draft proposal with a 9-3 vote that would allow people charged with disorderly conduct to be jailed for up to 10 days.
The bill would reverse 2017 legislation that prohibited someone from being jailed solely for a disorderly conduct charge.
Proponents of the bill, one of a handful of criminal justice bills discussed, said the changes would ease burdens on law enforcement and keep offenders off the street.
Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, spoke in favor of the proposal, saying it would give police more opportunity to deescalate potentially dangerous situations.
“I see where it gives a guy time to cool off can have a lot of benefits in the future,” Regier said.
Brian Gootkin, director of the Department of Corrections, also favored the proposed changes.
“We have limited resources out on the street, and when you’re dealing with the same person over and over and over again, not only is it a jail issue, but it definitely is a resource issue,” he said.
But many jails in Montana are overcrowded, and DOC Deputy Director Cynthia Wolken said the changes could put an unnecessary squeeze on the already limited space.
“I wonder if prioritizing our limited jail space on … this population of people that go in there is going to improve public safety or keep us further from what we’re trying to get, which is swift and certain sanctions and focusing on the high-risk violent folks,” she said.
On Monday, the Law and Justice Interim Committee heard public comment on the bill proposal. During testimony, Nicole Gomez spoke against the changes on behalf of Montana Women Vote, asserting the bill would unfairly target Montana’s unhoused population.
“Montana Women Vote urges the commission to consider the impact of harsher sentencing and incarceration for even a few days on a person’s ability to escape poverty,” she said.
The committee also advanced bills that would require sober living homes to register with the Department of Public Health and Human Services and change the definition for persistent felony offenders under supervision to include offenders on conditional release.
At the same time, the committee postponed adopting the language of draft bills that would reduce the felony amount for theft from $1,500 to $500, make theft of a motor vehicle a felony, no matter the value of the car, and create a pretrial diversion pilot program for certain non-violent drug offenses. The committee will take these draft proposals up again at its November 15 meeting.
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