Senate passes Hanna’s Act to help investigate, find missing Montanans

(UM Legislative News Service) After a turbulent journey through the Montana Legislature, the bill named after Hanna Harris, who was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013, passed the Senate 37-13 on Tuesday.

House Bill 21, also known as “Hanna’s Act,” would create a special position in the state Department of Justice to investigate all missing persons cases in the state. The bill’s carrier, Sen Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said it’s key to addressing what she calls the “crisis” of missing Montanans.

“This person has those skills and relationships to be able to cut through all the bureaucratic red tape and make sure we do everything we can to find those people who are missing or murdered,” Sands said.

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee recently re-added language that forces the DOJ to create the position, and also brought back $100,000 per year in funding. Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee where that part of the bill was removed and she voted against the changed bill Tuesday.

“This is a job description that we are putting into statute. That leaves no flexibility for the position to adapt and adjust,” Fielder said. “Unless you come back next session and run another bill at the expense of the taxpayers.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee also originally tabled the bill, but eventually passed it.

However, while “Hanna’s Act” was in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, it was amended to be a companion to Senate Bill 312, which would create a unified network that collects data on missing indigenous people. With the new changes, if SB 312 died, so would “Hanna’s Act.”

SB 312, which is sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month. But it was then revived and passed out with amendments that switched oversight from the Board of Crime Control to the DOJ.

SB 312 passed its final vote in the House 92-5 on Tuesday. Both bills will need to go back to their original houses to adopt new amendments before becoming law.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.