U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris will this week begin imposing sentences to defendants in the ongoing Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation scandal.
He faces many difficult decisions as he balances compassion for the criminals vs. justice for the many victims.
Let’s begin with the fact that there are too many people in jail. Many prisons are filled with people who could be better rehabilitated outside of prison walls and who could provide better service to the public by performing community service or being held under house arrest.
Is this a case where justice could be better served by more lenient sentences?
Let’s examine the facts.
From a clinical sense, the defendants are charged with defrauding the federal government in that they embezzled funds from federal projects.
In reality, they stole not from some power on high, but they stole vital services from the people of Rocky Boy,
In a series of bribery and kickback schemes, the money that ended up in the defendants’ pockets was designed to provide pure water to the reservation. It was intended to improve health services to an area that is suffering from poor madical care and shorter life spans than virtually any area of Montana.
The money was allocated to Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation to help lift residents from poverty and a sense of helplessness.
That’s not to say that those guilty of these crimes have not participated in tremendous service to their communities.
Tony Belcourt did meritorious service for the district he represented and for all of Montana when he was a Democratic member of the Montana House.
He was a passionate and effective supporter of causes that would have lifted people out of poverty and given hope to people where hope is in short supply.
Belcourt worked across the aisle with Republicans in a time when bipartisan cooperation was virtually nonexistent in Helena.
Dr. James Eastlick for years operated the underfunded health clinic on the reservation, providing medical care when there was always more need than money.
But the charges they have admitted to are very serious.
If a young punk were caught selling meth on the reservation, you can be certain he would be facing a long, hard sentence in federal prison — a sentence he probably richly deserved.
As egregious as selling meth might be, we believe Rocky Boy suffered a lot more from the criminals in the recent scandal.
Residents were deprived of services they desperately need.
Young people who could have turned to some of these people as role models are now, we fear, more disillusioned than ever.
Rocky Boy residents who were looking to their leaders to help build a strong, more financially stable community have been let down once again.
The good people of Rocky Boy have one more time been slapped in the face — this time by people who have been elected and appointed to represent them.
They have been told that “everybody does it,” and, with a shrug of the shoulders, “mistakes were made.”
Well, if indeed everybody does it — and we don’t believe that for a minute — that’s one reason Judge Morris should slam the hammer down. He should make it clear that the next person who does has some serious answering to do.
The money stolen will be replaced, but we fear the dark suspicion that this case has caused among the folks on the reservation will last for years to come.
We hear the cries for mercy, but the calls for justice ring a lot louder and a lot more clearly.
The idea of seeing people locked up, separated from friends and relatives sickens us. But the idea of seeing the reservation plundered sickens us more.
The judge is the judge, and he will make the decision. But we can only offer this advice:
Throw the book at ’em, judge.