MISSOULA, Mont. - Tuesday marks day seven of the 2017 legislative session in Helena, and lawmakers this year are attempting a major overhaul of the state's criminal sentencing structure.
House Bill 133 is scheduled for its first hearing on Thursday.
The 50-page bill contains a slew of changes to the way Montana laws are defined and how criminals are sentenced.
One major proposal contained in the bill eliminates the state's Persistent Felony Designation.
Under Montana law (46-1-202, MCA), if a felon who has served out their sentence is convicted of another felony within five years, they can be given the Persistent Felony Designation, which carries with it a five-year minimum mandatory sentence and a 100-year maximum sentence.
It’s applied to people convicted of violent crimes like armed robbery or assault. But it is also used to sentence people convicted of nonviolent felonies.
Among those is Christy Cummings, a nonviolent offender the prosecutor wanted designated a persistent felony offender for getting her fourth DUI and then being convicted of theft years later. She is serving a five-year prison sentence.
Prosecutors say the designation provides a valuable tool -- leverage they can use to negotiate plea agreements. We talked to a defense attorney who says that leverage can give prosecutors too much power.
"It gives a tremendous amount of power to the state and not so much the defense," said Paul Ryan, a Missoula-based criminal defense attorney. "It should be equal ground at a minimum, and it's not. With that situation they'll often hold it over your head. If you don't plead, then here's what's going to happen to you."
According to Missoula Deputy County Attorney Jason Marks he sees no reason to make any significant changes to the persistent felony designation.
"It certainly is used as a part of plea negotiations, and I don't know that there is anything improper about that," Marks said. "We're not talking three strikes and you're out with some kind of life sentence, California- style law. It's still ultimately up the judge to determine the appropriate sentence (with a minimum 5-year prison sentence)."