- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A bill to allow Montana’s governor to grant clemency to prisoners even if the state parole board recommends against it was introduced as part of package designed to create more oversight of the board.

Rep. Margie McDonald, D-Billings, introduced House Bill 43 in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

Under the measure, the governor would assume final authority over clemency requests from people convicted of crimes. The governor also would be able to waive fines, lessen a sentence or pardon someone.

“Thirty states have this. I think it would be wise for us to do so as well,” McDonald said. “I think in this case it’s about balance and checks on authority.”

The measure and related bills came out of an interim committee formed after inmate complaints that parole board decisions appear inconsistent or too strict. The board also drew increased scrutiny after Gov. Steve Bullock supported commuting the life sentence of convicted murderer Barry Beach. The board declined to forward a clemency recommendation.

“This has gone on for years and years and we have had dozens of families and people in corrections concerned about the unchecked power of the board,” said McDonald.

Former board chairman Mike McKee was the lone speaker against the bill.

“This bill would reinstitute politics into a system that has been for the most part unpoliticized until Barry Beach,” he said.

One of those seeking change is Amber Foster, whose efforts to get her husband, Russell, pardoned on a statutory rape conviction have failed to gain traction with the board. Foster was deemed the victim when her husband was convicted about 20 years ago but disputes that the crime occurred, saying the couple had consensual sex. The couple married and had children after his release from prison.

She has included letters from the couple’s pastor, a sex crimes counselor and an investigating officer at the time of the incident in her applications to the board.

“None of these letters initiated a hearing,” Foster said. “I know that there needs to be somebody overseeing what’s going on here.”

Two related bills were introduced Tuesday. One would allow the governor to remove a parole board chair. The other would require the board to comply with the state’s administrative procedures act, as other state executive boards are required to do.

Legislation introduced last week would require that board hearings be video recorded and made available to the public and that lawmakers oversee parole criteria.

Bullock has yet to name a replacement for McKee, who resigned Dec. 17. Board vice chair Pete Lawrenson is acting chair.

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