Among the things I guessed would happen during the 2015 legislative session, enthusiastically supporting a bill introduced by Nels Swandal was not high on the list. Swandal, as you may recall, ran a highly partisan campaign for the Supreme Court back in 2012, and seems to have political views that are far out of line with my own—and those of the 21st century. That being said, I enthusiastically support his bill which would end the possibility of jail time for eight non-violent offenses. Alison Moon explains what the bill would do:
Senate Bill 90 would exclude jail time for convictions of public nuisance; issuing bad checks totaling less than $1,500 and not part of a common scheme; first-offense theft of labor; and first-offense theft of property valued at less than $1,500.
The bill would also disqualify jail time as punishment for driving without insurance or a valid driver’s license, unless the offender’s license was revoked for a prior conviction of driving under the influence or refusing to take a drug test.
Sending people to jail for crimes that are largely the result of poverty only exacerbates poverty and limits the ability of these people to get their lives back on track. Even a short time in jail will threaten employment and future employability of those commit these relatively minor offenses, deepening the cycle of poverty and dysfunction. If our goal as a society is to reduce crime, punishment is probably the least effective model. Compelling restitution and giving those who break the law the chance to get their lives on track is a far more effective and just strategy. And that doesn’t even address the benefits to the overburdened public defenders office, who will have time freed up to offer legal counsel to those accused of more serious crimes.
Given the pressing need for jail space all across the state, as people in Lewis and Clark County are certainly aware, sensible reductions in unnecessary jail time make economic sense as well.
Those who spoke in favor of keeping these offenses made relatively weak arguments against the proposal.
Mark Murphy, representing the Montana County Attorneys Association, initially argued that the Bible demanded harsh punishment for theft before arguing that police would potentially not be able to respond to issues like shoplifting, for reasons that were not quite clear. Even more troubling was his assertion that “loss of bond revenue because of eliminating jail time for misdemeanors would hurt state budgets down the road.” The state of Montana should certainly not balance its budget on the backs of people charged with minor crimes–and the crowding of our local jails necessitating increased jail construction is a far more serious drain on our state’s finances than any bond revenue could generate.
No politician ever lost re-election for increasing penalties for crimes. As a society, we’ve so badly overreacted to the threat of crime that we’ve begun to incarcerate people at rates never before seen not only in our history, but in the history of the world. Let’s stop building jail cells and doing our level best to destroy lives and begin the process of enacting sane legal sanctions for relatively minor crimes.