Leave it to the Legislature to take a perfectly good bill and hollow it out until it is nothing but a feel-good measure with no funding and no teeth. It happens more often than anyone would like, but when the measure being gutted is as important as Hanna’s Act, these legislators should not be allowed to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The real work hasn’t even begun, and poor decisions made last week will only delay it further.

House Bill 21 is the proposal that would establish Hanna’s Act to create a missing persons specialist position in the Montana Department of Justice, a significant step toward streamlining communication among various law enforcement agencies handling missing person cases, particularly on Montana’s reservations.

The act is named after Hanna Harris, who was murdered in 2013. Her badly decomposed body was found on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation rodeo grounds, and her killers were caught and are both serving lengthy sentences. In this, her case is unusual. Too often, when a Native American woman goes missing, her body is never found and her abductors are never brought to justice. Native American women account for only about 3 percent of the state’s total population, but make up about 30 percent of the Montana DOJ’s current missing persons cases.

At this point, Montana legislators have no good excuse for remaining ignorant of the shockingly high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women, nor of the several sensible solutions proposed to help cut this rate down.

Hanna’s Act is one of three bills sponsored this session by Rep. Rae Peppers, who lives in Lame Deer just as Hanna Harris once did. Her HB 20, revising the missing children laws to expedite the reporting process, was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor in late February.

However, HB 54, revising other laws related to missing persons reports, was passed by the House 94-0, then tweaked and tabled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, then amended and passed by the committee 8-2. Hanna’s Act has followed an eerily similar path. It, too, was overwhelmingly passed by the House. It too was briefly blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee, then amended and approved on an 8-2 vote.

It now advances to the Senate floor, where it will be carried by Missoula Sen. Diane Sands. But it is barely worth advancing anymore.

Committee Vice Chair Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who had voted to table the version of the bill that was approved by 99 Montana representatives just a few weeks earlier, amended it in several substantial ways. The legislation no longer contains $100,000 in funding to support a missing person specialist — but states the DOJ “may” still employ one. Further, the description of the specialist’s duties was removed from the bill.

So Montana is left with a bill that gives the DOJ permission to hire someone — anyone, really — and no money with which to fund that position. Oh, and it also “authorizes” the DOJ to “assist with all missing persons investigations, regardless of age.”

What it also does is allow certain legislators to make it appear to constituents as though they actually did something about this urgent, tragic issue. Montanans shouldn’t fall for this deception.

Remember, just a couple short months ago, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, visited with lawmakers in Helena and spoke about the need to pass legislation strengthening the response to cases of missing and murdered Native women.

"We must do better for the families," Daines said then. "We must work together, coordinate between federal agencies, state and local government."

And just last week, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, announced that he was joining bipartisan federal legislation introduced by Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to support collaboration among tribes, law enforcement and federal agencies. The Not Invisible Act would start by establishing an advisory committee tasked with looking into violent crimes against Native people.

“A lack of communication and coordination between the federal government and tribal communities in cases involving missing, murdered, and trafficked Indigenous women has slowed law enforcement and delayed justice,” Tester explained.

Earlier in the week, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which is based in Billings but represents 11 tribal organizations in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, proposed a similar panel at the state level. They sent a letter to Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, requesting that he take executive action to convene a task force that would study solutions to the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women and girls.

The governor would be wise to heed this recommendation and make good on his administration’s promises to take meaningful steps — especially in light of the Legislature’s ham-handedness on this issue.

As Tom Rodgers, an adviser to the tribal leaders council, put it: “What we’ve seen is there’s been a lot of words but little or no action. We don’t trust words; we only trust action.”

Additionally, for his part, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican, should take a stronger hand in advocating for meaningful legislation. After all, Hanna’s Act would directly affect his office and he has repeatedly spoken in favor of it. Why aren’t key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee listening? Fox ought to be meeting personally with any legislator, and especially Republicans (who hold majorities in both chambers) who doubts the necessity of this bill to convince them of the urgent need to devote more resources to solving missing and murdered cases involving Native American women. 

It should be abundantly clear to all by now that Montana needs a Hanna’s Act that includes real action — not just the appearance of it.

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