HELENA — Two bills introduced this week would give the Montana Legislature more authority over the state's seven-member parole board.
Democratic Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena introduced the bills in the House Judiciary Committee.
Eck said House Bill 135 provides for clear legislative authority over the state Board of Pardons and Parole when it comes to criteria to determine a prisoner's eligibility for parole.
"We make final determination of criteria," she told lawmakers. "We don't want that discretion resting with the board."
No one spoke in opposition to the bill on Friday.
That measure and related bills came out of an interim committee formed after inmates complained the board's decisions appeared inconsistent or too strict in granting parole requests.
"We heard a lot of concerning testimony," Eck said. She referred to complaints about prisoner treatment during hearings and denial of parole even after prisoners had done what the board had asked them to do.
Eck also introduced a bill Thursday that would require all board hearings to be video-recorded and made available to the public. Taping the meetings would hold board members more accountable and would shed light on what happens in hearings, she said.
Several lawmakers during the hearing disputed a cost estimate attached to the bill saying nearly $1.5 million would be needed to implement a video system over the next four years. Eck said that, after speaking with the board's computer staff, a more realistic estimate of nearly $650,000 was determined and said it's possible the cost could be trimmed further.
The parole board also has drawn increased scrutiny since Gov. Steve Bullock supported commuting the life sentence of convicted murderer Barry Beach, but the board declined to forward a clemency recommendation. Next week, lawmakers are scheduled to hear a bill that would give the governor power to grant clemency even if the board recommends against it.
Another bill set to get a hearing next week would give the governor the authority to remove the board chairman.
Democratic Rep. Ellie Hill of Missoula, a member of the interim committee, said previously that she had asked Bullock to appoint a new chair to replace longtime board chairman Mike McKee. She said she and others felt that in some cases, McKee would choose three-person panels to decide cases in order to achieve a "predetermined outcome."
McKee, of Hamilton, resigned in December.
Bullock has appointed attorney Mark Staples of Helena to the board as McKee's replacement, but he has not named a new board leader.
Board vice chair Pete Lawrenson is acting chair, Bullock spokesman Dave Parker said.