Daily dose of compassion: Punitive attorney generals are a bust


The Demo primary for Montana’s next Attorney General sees three good candidates competing for the slot. Mike Wheat, a Bozeman attorney and former state senator, is challenging Helena attorney Steve Bullock and Great Falls attorney and House Minority Leader John Parker. Winnowing the chaff from the wheat, so to speak, isn’t easy, but the reason Mike Wheat stands out is, simply put, his compassion.

Let me make it clear from the outset that any of the three Democratic contenders for Attorney General would undoubtedly do a great job. Bullock has been an assistant AG and has worked on the stream access issues that are near and dear to Montanans’ hearts. Parker paid his dues in the horrendous last legislative session, battling headstrong Republicans through a vicious 90 days of party-line votes and ugly debate. Both men are young, smart and ambitious, so Montana can’t really lose if either one of them winds up in the AG’s office.

Nonetheless, if you go through what the campaigns have offered to the public so far, one thing seems to come up again and again: the desire by both Parker and Bullock to stress their prosecutorial stances. For Parker, this is nothing new—he is, after all, a county prosecutor. Bullock, however, is not. But what he has said he wants to do if elected AG is to go after people who are abusing prescription drugs, which he sees as a new and growing threat.

To do so, he wants to establish a prescription drug database that would keep track of who gets what prescriptions, so if someone is gaming the system by “doctor shopping” for more uppers, downers, or whatever, it will show up and they’ll get busted.

To be sure, there are plenty of good reasons to bust some people. But opening what amounts to a new front in the failed “war on drugs” is fraught with potential problems. For one thing, the government has plenty of information on its citizens these days and can pretty much eavesdrop, spy, wiretap and track anyone for anything in total secrecy. The thought that the government will also be watching and recording prescription drug purchases seems a little over the edge—and a lot too much like what we’ve gotten from the Bush cartel. It also seems like a perfect opportunity for yet more identity theft when the clever hacker rips off the database.

Which brings us to Wheat and why he seems a lot different in this regard. Wheat, like Parker, was a county prosecutor in Butte many years back. But unlike Parker, his focus is not about what a tough prosecutor he’s going to be—in fact, of the three candidates, Wheat is the only one who personally opposes the death penalty. In a recent interview on the blog Left in the West, (which has great interviews of all three candidates), Wheat put it this way: “We cannot, in our constitutional jurisprudence system, guarantee that the people we’re killing for crimes actually committed the crime. And so, to me, it’s very simple. If you can’t guarantee that, then you’re denying the constitutional rights to people who may be innocent.”

The death penalty is one of those issues where science is proving Wheat’s assertion correct. How many times have we read that some prisoner or another has been released after years behind bars because their genes don’t match those found at the crime scene? Too often, I’d say.

If one might wonder how it is that Wheat came to feel so strongly about putting someone to death, it might just be because as a Vietnam combat Marine—and Purple Heart recipient—he has seen too much death, too close, during his time in the war. Maybe he’s just had enough of killing, especially by our “civilized” society.

But there are other reasons to applaud his approach as well. As we know, President Bush has made huge changes in our society in the last eight years. After 9/11, Bush and the Republicans jumped on their ability to jam measures through a shocked and scared Congress, significantly diminishing our constitutional rights while keeping us in a state of permanent paranoia—hence the “global war on terror” which, if Bush had his way, would never end.

And where has this gotten us as a society? Suddenly, we’re building border fences, flying spy drones over our own people, requiring passports to go to Canada, dealing with measures like Real ID, and taking the fingerprints of every foreign visitor. Big Brother has certainly loomed over us recently, and the prosecutorial emphasis is all too clear.

But many people are growing weary of living in this prosecutorial environment, where our own government urges us to turn each other in, and where the agencies we fund with tax dollars suddenly become our masters instead of our public servants.

A 2005 report by the International Centre for Prison Studies in London puts it in perspective. “The United States—with 5 percent of the world’s population—incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s inmates.” Our incarceration rate is 6.2 times greater than Canada’s, 7.8 times more than France’s, and 12.3 times more than Japan’s. More Americans are employed in law enforcement and corrections work than the combined workforces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, our three largest corporate employers. The cost to the nation is $200 billion annually—a 400 percent increase (in constant dollars) over the last 25 years. Why would we want to notch up these sad statistics?

Much of what the AG does has nothing to do with prosecuting people, such as sitting on the Land Board and determining the fate of 5.2 million acres of Montana’s school trust lands, or defending stream access, for instance. Now would be a good time to break from the “bust ’em” mentality and turn toward a more compassionate approach to our society—and for that reason, Mike Wheat seems worthy of our support.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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