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Montana House Approves Changes To State Parole Board

Rep. Ellie Hill Smith (D) HD-90.
Courtesy Montana Legislature

The Montana House gave preliminary approval to two bills to revise the state Board of Probation and Parole.

These bills are among a handful of bills aimed at making the Parole board more accountable and transparent.

The first bill would clarify that the governor can change who is the presiding officer of the Board of Pardons and Parole without cause.

Representative Ellie Hill of Missoula says this is important because the Parole board chair has an enormous amount of administrative power.

"For example, the parole hearing consists of three panels. the chair of the board selects who the members of those panels are and that panel staffs the parole hearings, the revocation hearings, and recommendations for clemency."

Hill says it made sense to the Law and Justice Interim Committee to give a Governor the ability to pick the chair of the parole board.

Representatives gave initial approval to House Bill 19 on a 59-to-41 vote.

Hill is also the sponsor of another interim committee bill that would require the parole board to comply with the Montana Administrative Procedure Act.

"The consensus among the members of our committee was that over the years the Parole Board in Montana had really been given uncheck and unfettered control of their decision making. No quasi-judicial body appointed by our governor has similar power to the parole board. And no quasi-judical body should have power that’s not accountable to other branches of government."

House Bill 128 would require the Parole Board to follow the statutes the Montana Legislature creates, such as, provide notice of hearings, consider public comment, and when you deny a ruling you have to tell the public why.

The parole board has been the subject of scrutiny, in part, because of the case of Barry Beach. He’s been in prison for the past three decades for a murder he now says he didn’t commit.

Beach was briefly released from prison and ordered a new trial in 2011. But a divided Montana Supreme Court decision reversed that district court ruling and Beach was sent back to prison.

The Parole Board repeatedly has rejected Beach’s appeal for clemency and rejected a hearing on whether to commute Beach’s life-sentence. That would allow him to be considered for parole. Last April, Governor Steve Bullock took unusual action and wrote a letter supporting parole for Beach.

Representative gave preliminary approval to House Bill 128 on a 97-to-3 vote.

Both bills face a third and final vote in the House before being transmitted to the Senate for consideration.

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