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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Sexual Crimes Bills Get First Hearing At Montana Legislature

Hearing room at the Montana Capitol.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio

Thursday morning, The Senate Judiciary committee heard the first two bills in a package of 5 that aim to overhaul state law on sex crimes.

One bill would allow a judge to soften penalties on teenagers who have consensual sex.

Sponsor Sue Malek, a Missoula Democrat, says current law can send a kid to prison for life and require them register as a sex offender. Montana law says kids younger than 16 can’t consent to sex.

Malek says those penalties are too harsh for what can happen in a nonviolent, non-predatory, situation:

"Teenagers sometimes fall in love, and their relationship deepens, and sexual relations result."

But, she added that the proposed law still holds 18-year-olds accountable for their actions, and they could still be charged with rape. Although, this bill would not require them to register as a sex offender.

Testifying in favor of the bill was Amber Foster, from Glasgow. She’s been married to her husband for a little over 21 years. They met when she was 15. He was 19, was sent to prison and became a registered sex offender.

Foster says their family is still impacted from a crime she was a victim of decades ago, because of her husband's status:

"You can’t get into certain houses, certain apartment complexes. You’re not going to get just any job. You’re going to get what you can take, whatever, you just have to do whatever you have to do to support your family," says Foster.

During the hearing, some senators raised concerns that language in the bill could be interpreted to say that it’s okay for adults to have sex with kids, as long as there is consent. Supporters of the bill disagreed with that interpretation, but both sides agreed to work at clarifying the wording.

Another bill in the hearing would allow a juvenile with no history with sexual crimes to not necessarily have to register as a sex offender, after their first offense.

Members of the Montana American Civil Liberties Union, Montana Sex Offender Treatment Association and Montana County Attorneys Association spoke in support of both pieces of legislation. 

The committee is expected to vote on both bills next week.

On Friday, three more bills suggesting updates on sexual crime law will be heard, including one that could change what state law considers rape.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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