We believe that recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, and justice; and that despite placement within our state's corrections system, any human's dignity and worth should not be denied or withheld for any reason. Yet it is especially heinous when a disparity exists between groups marked with the indelible labels of minority versus majority. HB 591, by Representative Pease-Lopez, attempts to correct one component of this disparity by requiring that one American Indian always be present on the State Board of Pardons and Parole.
This problem exists outside Montana's borders. Nationwide, a much higher percentage of American Indians are imprisoned, per capita, than any other ethnicity besides African Americans. In Montana, where American Indians comprise about six percent of the population, the numbers show a dangerously wide gap:
-In 2008, 19.5 percent of males and 27.1 percent of females in Montana correctional facilities were American Indians.?
-Those numbers are slightly down from 2007, but higher than 2006, 2005 and 2004.
-These numbers do not reflect the number of American Indians imprisoned outside of Montana, nor the number finishing sentencing outside of prisons and on parole or probation.
It must be made clear that the Network and our allies do not want to insinuate or draw the assumption that our current Governor, nor the leadership of the Board on Pardons and Parole or Montana Department of Corrections, are ignorant of the disparity or unwilling to work on remedying the great divide within our corrections system. In fact, current board membership includes three American Indians, or about 42% of the board. It should be duly noted that Governor Schweitzer's office stood in support of HB 591, and Indian Affairs Coordinator Jennifer Perez Cole spoke on its behalf. Our greater concern, and the concern of Indian leaders who have fought hard for this bill for many sessions, is with who will make these appointments after our current leaders are gone.
Montana code (MCA 2-15-108) requires racial and gender parity on "all appointive boards, commissions, committees, and councils of state government." But parity is parity: there is no requirement that on a board of seven, any member is required to represent one of the state's largest minorities.
Perhaps in the 2009 Session this will finally happen.
Jamee Greer, a not-so-regular contributor at Left in the West, lobbies for the Montana Human Rights Network during the 2009 Legislative Session.