Representatives listen to floor speeches during the 2019 Montana Legislature.

Representatives listen to floor speeches during the 2019 Montana Legislature.

A bill to increase the mandatory minimum sentence for a number of sex crimes when the victim is younger than 12 passed the state House on third reading Wednesday.

State law dictates a 100-year prison sentence for incest, sexual abuse and sexual intercourse without consent when the offender is 18 or older and the victim is younger than 12. Senate Bill 155 carried by Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, mandates that the first 25 years be served without possibility of parole or suspension, up from the 10 years currently set in state law.

The Legislature lowered the mandatory minimum from 25 years to 10 years in 2017.

Webb’s bill saw one last impassioned debate on the House floor Tuesday when Rep. Rob Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, expressed concerns about what the bill’s new mandatory minimum of 25 years would do not to the guilty, but the innocent.

“What I see happening with this bill is that this allows prosecutors to overcharge a crime and then encourage, potentially, an innocent person to plead down,” said Farris-Olsen, an associate at Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson, & Deola, PLLP in Helena. “And I know some of you may have doubts that that happens, but I’ve seen it. I haven’t seen it in a sexual assault or intercourse without consent context, but I’ve seen it with other crimes.”

Farris-Olsen also said parole is unlikely for offenders with victims younger than 12 and that passing the bill would likely prompt more cases to go to trial, forcing more victims to relive the trauma of their attack.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, questioned the bill’s fiscal note, which implies no fiscal impact in the short-term but a long-term impact on the state Department of Corrections of more than $50 million.

“If there’s any crime that the state should be willing to bear the cost on, it is to house criminals who rape children under 12 years old,” countered Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, who carried Senate Bill 155 in the House. “That is an expense that I am certainly willing to bear.”

On the board

Other criminal justice bills are still inching towards Gov. Steve Bullock’s office as the Legislature eclipses 75 days in session.

A bill carried by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, to change the process by which state prisoners leave state supervision under probation cleared the House a second time Monday after being amended by the Senate.

Under Regier’s House Bill 463, the state Department of Corrections and county attorney must notify felony victims of a defendant’s motion to receive conditional discharge from supervision. The victim would receive a copy of the motion and be allowed to submit a written statement. They would also be allowed to testify if the court grants the defendant a hearing.

The House concurred on second reading Wednesday with Senate amendments to House Bill 590 carried by Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, which forbids defendants to interview before trial alleged victims of sexual abuse under the age of 16, or even immediate family of that age. The bill makes exceptions only when the court decides such an interview is required by “exceptional circumstances.”

The House will consider as soon as Thursday an amended version of House Bill 654 carried by Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, to establish a special revenue account to fund drug treatment courts.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

The bill’s original 10 percent tax on opioids did not make it out of the House Taxation committee, which instead allowed for a $2 million appropriation from the state consumer protection account. The Senate Finance and Claims committee removed that appropriation Tuesday.

Off the floor

House Bill 749 requiring massage therapy businesses to post or make available their therapists’ licenses and establish a two-agent human trafficking enforcement team within the state Division of Criminal Investigation reaches the Senate Judiciary committee Thursday.

The House Appropriations committee concurred on Senate Bill 147 in executive action Wednesday. Among other things, the bill categorizes paid direct sexual acts that are not intercourse as prostitution.

The House Judiciary committee heard Wednesday Senate Bill 65, a 79-page overhaul of state DUI law, but did not take action. That same committee has not taken action on an amended Senate Bill 114, which revises penalties for stalking, since hearing the bill on March 18.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard Wednesday a bill to revise state criminal code on disorderly conduct and theft. Notably, House Bill 421 assesses “enhanced” penalties for anyone using an emergency exit to further a theft.

The Senate Judiciary Committee tabled House Joint Resolution 5 on Mar. 20 after the resolution passed the House in January. The resolution proposed an interim study of deferred prosecution and pretrial diversion programs.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Local and State Government Reporter

State and local government reporter for the Independent Record.

Load comments