HELENA — A measure to strip jail time for some first-time misdemeanor offenders, leaving just fines in place, easily cleared the Montana Senate on Friday despite opposition from county attorneys.
The proposal would mean that the state would no longer have to provide public defenders for those charged with the crimes. Backers argue it would save money, ease crowding in jails and free up busy public defenders.
The Senate unanimously approved the measure 47-0. It faces another set of hearings in the House.
The list of offenses in the bill includes theft less than $1,500, writing bad checks less than $1,500, public nuisance, and driving without a license or insurance. The crimes currently carry the threat of up to six months in jail if a judge so chooses.
The bill reduces maximum jail time for disorderly conduct, excluding false bomb threats, from 10 days to three days.
The Montana American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued and won an over inadequate public defender system and crowded jails in the state, said the proposal is a commonsense way to save money. The measure was brought to the Legislature by the state Office of Public Defender, which has to provide defense on request for any crime that can result in jail time.
"We are just glad to see there is a constructive proposal about how to take some pressure off an overworked and underfunded agency," said ACLU Montana Executive Director Scott Crichton. "It is a good bill, not just for what it does for public defenders, but for what it also does to help county jails."
But Mark Murphy, a lobbyist with the Montana County Attorney Association, said the measure won't save any money because the public defender agency doesn't plan on reducing its budget.
He also argued that important surcharges used to fund parts of the justice system, which are attached to the misdemeanors, will now go unpaid. He argues that the threat of jail time, and adjudication process for those crimes, allows the courts to collect those fees.
Murphy said restitution in the theft cases will also be harder to collect. The county attorneys argue that criminal punishment shouldn't be axed just to save money.
"You could save $45 million by eliminating Title 45 of the criminal code and eliminate criminal enforcement," Murphy said.
The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, said the county attorneys are wrong. The courts have said they will still be able to collect any fees and restitution, she said, and those who don't pay can be found in contempt of court and face further punishment.
The crimes, she said, don't merit jail time for first offenses.
The public defender agency reports that it would save about $500,000 in time spent on such cases, which it plans to allocate to more important work. It received more than 2,000 new cases in 2012 of the type described in the bill.
"This is a heck of a lot of money to be spending on a crime like driving without insurance," Driscoll said.