Guest Column

Legislature’s Work on Criminal Justice and Public Safety 

We worked to improve public safety by cracking down on violent criminals, helping crime victims, and supporting law enforcement

By Jason Ellsworth, Barry Usher, Dennis Lenz & Chris Friedel

Public safety has been a significant and growing concern in our communities for the past several years. The 2023 Legislature heard these concerns loud and clear and acted to make our state a safer place to work, play, and raise a family.

We took on human traffickers with HB 112 from Rep. Jodee Etchart. It increased penalties for human trafficking and gave law enforcement more tools to prosecute these heinous crimes. HB 112 has already been credited for a major prostitution bust in Bozeman. SB 265, sponsored by Sen. Mark Noland, drastically increased fines for human trafficking. SB 522 from Sen. Daniel Zolnikov will help provide short-term lodging to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. 

The Legislature aided the victims of sex crimes by passing HB 79 (Rep. Amy Regier), HB 640 (Rep. Narrah Hastings), and SB 38 (Sen. Bob Brown). Those three bills created a sexual assault response network within the Montana Department of Justice, required sexual assault evidence to be preserved for 75 years, and strengthened sex offender registry laws, respectively. 

We also cracked down on dangerous drug activity by imposing mandatory jail time and large fines for fentanyl traffickers (HB 791, Rep. Courtenay Sprunger) and expanding the ability to test for drugs in DUI cases by using saliva test kits (SB 13, Sen. Keith Regier). 

Legislators continued our work to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons. HB 163 by Rep. Tyson Running Wolf extended the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force and authorized a full-time coordinator. HB 18, also by Rep. Running Wolf, established a missing persons response team training grant program. Sen. Bob Brown sponsored SJ 5, which calls on Congress fulfill the federal government’s obligation to fully fund law enforcement in Indian County. 

We also made significant reforms to the child protective services (CPS) system and sober living houses. SB 94 by Sen. Barry Usher raised standards for sober living housing and recovery residences. Sen. Dennis Lenz and Rep. Jennifer Carlson passed five bills to ensure minors in CPS cases have proper legal representation, require more accountability and responsiveness to families from CPS, created a speciality court for dependency and neglect cases, and created penalties for false reporting in CPS cases.   

The Legislature gave law enforcement more resources to protect the public. HB 597 from Rep. Neil Duram provided funding for a statewide Next Generation 9-1-1 system. We also funded 10 new positions at the Montana Department of Justice dedicated to combatting human trafficking, internet crimes against children, sexual assault, elder abuse, and the MMIP crisis. 

Finally, Sen. Barry Usher sponsored SB 294 to create the End of Watch Trust to cover medical and other expenses for catastrophically injured or killed law enforcement officers and their immediate families for five years after the injury or death of the officer. 

In summary, the 2023 Legislature worked to improve public safety by cracking down on violent criminals, helping crime victims, and supporting law enforcement.

Sen. Jason Ellsworth is the President of the Senate and represents the Bitterroot Valley. Sens. Barry Usher, Dennis Lenz and Chris Friedel represent Billings and surrounding communities including Forsyth and Roundup. Usher and Lenz also serve in Senate leadership as Majority Whips. 

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