Bozeman Daily Chronicle editorial, February 3, 2017

In a bit of parliamentary shenanigans our lawmakers are so good at, a state House of Representatives committee has cavalierly amended a bill to do exactly the opposite of what it was intended to do.

House Bill 236 was introduced to clarify that law enforcement booking photographs are criminal justice information and should be released to the public. Right now, most jurisdictions in Montana release the photos; a few others don’t — this despite a state district judge ruling that the photos should be released. In Gallatin County, the photos are still kept secret.

The bill — before it was amended — is backed by law enforcement agencies and the media and is sponsored by a Kalispell Republican.

Instead of acting on the bill’s intent, the House Judiciary Committee last week amended the measure to prohibit the release of the booking photos with the committee chairman likening the release of the photos to “revenge porn,” or the posting of sexual images online with the consent of the subject.

Many of the issues before the Legislature are complicated, but this one is not: With few exceptions, criminal justice information is public and the booking photos are part of that information.

The sentiment among opponents to the idea is that release of the photos unfairly maligns an arrestee before he or she convicted of a crime. But by extension of that logic, all arrest records and trials should be secret until a verdict is handed down.

The framers of our constitutions — both federal and state — opted to keep our nation’s criminal justice system largely open to the public for good reason. They were keenly aware of the abuses of closed courts in other parts of the world where defendants can be imprisoned, tortured and even executed with little or no public knowledge.

An open criminal justice system demands accountability and prevents abuses on the part of law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and judges. Without an open system, an unscrupulous law officer could act on a personal vendetta and jail an innocent person without providing justification or even acknowledging having the person in custody. And to pretend there isn’t a real danger of those kinds of abuses is to forget history.

Right-headed lawmakers in both parties need to correct this committee’s action, amend the bill back to its original intent and pass it on to the governor’s desk. Booking photos are part of the criminal justice record and the record is — and must be — open to the public.