Two bills from Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, meant to strengthen the state's ability to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people, became law Monday.
House Bill 35 creates the Missing Indigenous Persons Review Commission, which will be under the Department of Justice.
The commission will work to educate the public, law enforcement and policymakers about missing Indigenous persons and strategies for investigation and prevention. It will also recommend policies and practices that may encourage jurisdictional collaboration and coordination and reduce the incidence of missing Indigenous persons.
House Bill 98 extends the funding for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force and the Looping in Native Communities (LINC) grant program to 2023, which was first created in the 2019 legislative session.
“The intent of this suite of bills is to ensure that gaps in the justice and law enforcement system are filled so that our brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles are found and brought home,” Stewart Peregoy said in a emailed statement.
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the legislation Monday.
“Montana faces a tragic trend of missing and murdered Indigenous persons, and we must bring all resources to bear in state and tribal government as well as law enforcement to end it,” Gianforte said in an emailed statement. “These new laws equip the state with the tools needed to track data, raise awareness, and strengthen interagency collaboration to protect Montana’s indigenous persons. I’m grateful to Rep. Stewart Peregoy for her dedication to ending this crisis and for her leadership in getting these bipartisan bills to my desk.”
While Natives are about 7% of the state's population, they make up about a quarter of missing persons cases. The 2019 Legislature passed a package of bills meant to start addressing the problem, including creating the LINC program.
Last week, Stewart Peregoy's House Bill 36 was voted down in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. The legislation would have created a grant to pay for the training of five multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional teams to provide rapid and comprehensive responses when there's a report of a missing Native American in the state.
It had cleared the House on a 100-0 vote in February and advanced on an initial bipartisan vote in the Senate, 39-11. But it went down on a 9-10 vote in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, after Sen. Ryan Osmundson, a Republican from Buffalo who heads the committee, said there was a federal program that would accomplish the same thing as the bill at no cost to the state.
Stewart Peregoy said she wanted to see HB 36 revived because while the federal program might be an option, it hasn't been a factor in Montana.
"It's there, but it's not being utilized or it's not being publicized," Stewart Peregoy said last week.