Don't fool yourself: A new, amended version of Hanna's Act, excellent legislation authored by Rep. Rae Peppers, was destroyed by the Montana Senate Monday.
The only question is how much lawmakers are fooling themselves by the new, revised version.
Originally, the bill, titled "Hanna's Act" after a murdered Northern Cheyenne woman, would have funded an additional position through the Montana Department of Justice for a coordinator to input information about missing indigenous women and children. This problem has grown to alarming levels as crime statistics show that Native American women are exploited and murdered at a much higher rate than virtually any other group. Because of cultural barriers and jurisdictional issues on reservations, many cases go unsolved or are not responded to in a timely manner.
This measure would have created a position specifically to focus on the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women. Secondly, having a full-time person dedicated to the issue, brings a level of urgency and scrutiny to the problem.
Earlier, the Senate stripped the funding from the position, but the bill would have required the Department of Justice to create the position anyway. That version failed in committee on a 5-to-5 tie vote.
During the discussions, it was evident that many lawmakers had the misguided and backward view that tribes in Montana are flush with federal cash and can afford to deal with their own criminal problems.
But that's treating Native Americans as second-class citizens. We doubt lawmakers would even blink if the same crime rates were present in a white community.
On Friday, Sen. Jennifer Fielder, one of the members who had originally spoken so cluelessly on the issue in the first place, seemingly redeemed herself by "blasting" the bill out of committee onto the Senate floor. However, the new bill has all been gutted and we believe meaningless even as a token piece of legislation.
We believe that a bill like this is an insult to the problem of violence against missing and murdered indigenous women, and we'd suggest that lawmakers kill it and find a more meaningful way to address the problem.
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Very little of the original bill still stands.
The Senate has stripped out all of the funding, and left the position optional for the Department of Justice. Maybe even more insulting, it gutted the entire job description. So, if you're keeping score: It would allow the Department of Justice to create an optional position, without funding and no job description.
Huh. We wonder how far that would go.
Lawmakers are faced with a crisis in Indian Country. And unfortunately, rather than allocating a pittance to it, they've stripped the money and then taken out any meaning.
If the Montana Legislature cannot summon $100,000 for coordination and collaboration for law enforcement and protection, then what is its purpose? The most basic responsibility lawmakers have is to ensure public safety.
Lawmakers and citizens must also do more to educate themselves about the complexities of law enforcement on tribal lands. Often, authorities don't know what other agencies are doing or information falls through the cracks. For example, is the county sheriff responsible for reporting a missing woman? What about the FBI, which handles law enforcement, or the Bureau of Indian Affairs? This is why a central coordinator at the state level and a database is so essential. And that's also why the Legislature's blase attitude about funding the position and program is so vexing.
We suggest that the Legislature abandon the bill as it is because it's a waste of time, and instead we urge executive action from Gov. Steve Bullock.
Fortunately, a path has been suggested by tribal leaders for something that could make a real change. We hope that Bullock does what the lawmakers didn't, and takes the suggestion of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which urged the governor to create a task to find solutions.
State government is cash strapped. But the number of women who are missing or stand to become victims of violence is too great to be ignored. We hope that if Bullock creates such a task force that it will collect information that can be used at the next legislative session to convince reluctant lawmakers to fund at least one position and create a program to help curb the scourge of women who are missing or murdered in Montana's tribal communities.