HELENA – Advocates say they’re hopeful that the Montana Legislature will be able to pass a pair of bills addressing what they have called a crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans in the state. Both bills had been stalled in committee, but are now alive once again.
Rep. Rae Peppers, a Democrat from Lame Deer, is sponsoring House Bill 21, known as “Hanna’s Act.” The bill is named after Hanna Harris, a Lame Deer woman found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013. Harris’ mother and sister were among dozens of people who testified in support of the bill when it was first introduced in January.
Peppers said a disproportionate number of missing people in Montana are indigenous – and many are women or children. She argued the state needs to take action to help with the crisis.
“There’s a real need for us to start monitoring, identifying and following these cases to ensure that things are going to get done,” she said.
HB 21 would create a new missing persons specialist in the Montana Department of Justice. They would be responsible for working closely with federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement on missing persons cases. They would also manage the state missing persons database and organize training on missing persons investigations for law enforcement agencies.
“With missing and murdered, in particular, indigenous women, there has been no follow-up,” said Peppers. “This will force that action.”
The bill went through a number of changes as it made its way through the Legislature. In a House committee, a $100,000 appropriation for missing persons response was removed. A Senate committee initially tabled the bill but approved it after amending it to say the Department of Justice “may” hire a missing persons specialist – instead of “shall” hire – and removing the position’s specific job description.
Most recently, the Senate Finance and Claims Committee restored the original language about the specialist and added an authorization for the Department of Justice to spend $205,000 over two years for the position.
The committee also tied HB 21 to another bill, Senate Bill 312, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jason Small of Busby. That bill would create a missing indigenous persons task force, under the Montana Board of Crime Control. It would include representatives from all Montana tribes, the Montana Highway Patrol and the state Attorney General’s Office.
The task force would award a grant for a tribal college to create and manage the “Looping in Native Communities,” or LINC, network. The network would collect and share information about missing indigenous people.
SB 312 had twice been tabled in committees, but it was revived both times. The House Judiciary Committee took the bill from the table on Thursday. On Friday, the committee approved sending it to the full House, after adding $25,000 for the LINC program.
Now, if SB 312 fails to become law, HB 21 will also be voided.
While SB 312 wasn’t part of the original package of bills the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee proposed to deal with the missing and murdered indigenous women issue, Peppers said she’s supporting it.
“I am taking responsibility for SB 312 getting through the House,” Peppers said. “I’m thankful that it’s bipartisan support on our House side.”
Because both bills have been amended, they must pass the full House or Senate and return to their original chamber by Tuesday. SB 312 is set for a second reading on the House floor Saturday morning, while HB 21 has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the full Senate.
Peppers said she remains optimistic the bills will pass.
“I’m very anxious to see this get done,” she said. “We’re so close.”
Story by Jonathon Ambarian, MTN News