New Law: No jail time for some misdemeanor offenses

Local law enforcement agencies are grappling with a number of law changes, limited resources and increasing demands on those existing resources.

One of those law changes is HB 133, which eliminates the possibility of jail time for several misdemeanor offenses and institutes mandatory minimums for sex offenses against children aged 12 or older.

The bill was designed to lighten the burden for the Office of the Public Defender, Department of Justice, the court systems and the Department of Corrections, but is causing some headaches for the City of Great Falls.

It will require fingerprinting individuals charged for any criminal first offense, including those non-jailable misdemeanors, at the initial appearance as well as photographing.

Great Falls Municipal Judge Steven Bolstad testified against the bill during the legislative session. During a City Commission work session he said it was touted as saving money for DOC and easing the load for public defenders, but would strain the city’s small court and legal staff.

For example, if someone is charged with misdemeanor theft, the Great Falls Police Department will have to fingerprint and photograph the individual. If that person is found not guilty or the case is dismissed, the city has to send the fingerprints and photos back to the person within 10 days and destroy the digital copies.

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The new law will add costs for GFPD and likely for the municipal court in the future.

The new budgets includes $11,000 for a fingerprinter scanner, portable secure kiosk and other equipment to meet the new law requirements.

The city already had to make amendments to the new software system it’s in the midst of transitioning to so it will be compatible with the HB 133 requirements. The new software system isn’t set to go live until January.

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GFPD Chief Dave Bowen told commissioners he’s spoken with other police chiefs in Montana and many have hired additional prosecutors and legal staff in response to the new law.

“It has thrown law enforcement into a tailspin,” Bowen said.

Bowen has sent a letter to the city manager’s office and the city attorney detailing the reasons why GFPD is not compliant with the law and that the department is not in a position to move forward until after Jan. 1.

“We’re not set up to do it,” Bowen said. “I’m not anywhere near getting that ready to go.”

The GFPD is non-compliant with the fingerprinting portion of the law, but is otherwise complying with HB133.

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The law change is “concerning to me” in the officers ability to take people to jail, Bowen told commissioners earlier this month. He said it’s not that they want to incarcerate people, but it takes away a tool for officer’s in doing their jobs.

“It changes the way we arrest,” Bowen said. The city attorney’s office has done training sessions with GFPD on the new law requirements.

The Cascade County jail has offered to handle the fingerprinting and photographing, but that they’d charge the city for that service.