HELENA – Opponents of the death penalty are making another run at abolishing it in Montana – and told a House committee Monday there are multiple reasons for getting rid of what they called an ineffective, costly sentence.
“The death penalty system, like so many government programs, is wasteful, ineffective and unjust,” said Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, the sponsor of the bill abolishing it.
Hertz’s House Bill 336 would abolish the death penalty and replace it with life-in-prison without parole as the harshest criminal sentence in Montana.
If the bill passes, the two men on Montana’ death row would be resentenced to life in prison, with no parole. They’ve been on death row for 34 and 25 years, respectively.
Hertz told MTN News he thinks HB336 has a chance to pass the Republican-controlled Legislature, because there are “a lot of really good arguments for a lot of really different ideologies” to abolish the death penalty.
Conservatives who are pro-life can support it, he said, and also should like the fact that getting rid of the death penalty will save taxpayer money.
He told the House Judiciary Committee that studies have shown that having a murderer sentenced to death can cost 10 times as much as someone sentenced to life in prison, because of the costs of multiple appeals and legal proceedings.
“While we taxpayers don’t like paying for a criminal to sit in prison for 20 or 30 or even 50 years, it’s a travesty to pay 10 times that amount while dragging out a lengthy judicial process mandated by the Supreme Court,” he said. “It’s a painful process that can put a victim’s family through decades of legal maneuvering and often doesn’t even lead to an execution.”
The House Judiciary Committee took no action Monday. Chairman Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, said he doesn’t expect a vote for at least a week or so.
A similar bill made it to the floor of the Montana House two years ago but failed on a 50-50 vote. Republicans controlled that chamber by the same margin they do now: 59-41.
No one testified against the bill Monday, but several committee members suggested the death penalty could still be a deterrent, and questioned whether murderers sentenced to life in prison would truly never be released.
Hertz said his intent is that anyone sentenced to life-in-prison without parole would stay incarcerated the rest of their lives.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Judy Beck told MTN News that Montana’s prison system already has 63 inmates with a sentence of life, without parole.
Supporters of the bill said the death penalty not only costs the state a lot of money in legal costs, but also is immoral and doesn’t deter crime.
Susan DeBree, a Methodist minister from Livingston, said her daughter, Gretchen, was murdered in 1990, but the killer was never charged. If the person they thought killed her had been charged and sentenced to death, it wouldn’t have redeemed Gretchen’s life, she said.
“There are many family members of murder victims who favor abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life without possibility of parole,” she said. “I plead that you would listen to our voice. I choose to honor Gretchen’s life by asking for life.”