GREAT FALLS — "He’s a great kid. He’s got a great heart,” Jennifer Daniels said about her son, Jesse, as she looked at a picture of him on her phone. As of Wednesday, Jesse was in jail in Cascade County facing the possibility of spending the next 40 years in prison.
“I feel like, and maybe certain judges more than others, they feel like kids are throwaways,” said Jennifer.
Jesse is charged with three counts of aggravated kidnapping, four counts of assault with a weapon, one count of robbery, one count of aggravated burglary, one count of assault, and one count of carrying a concealed weapon.
The charges are for two incidents in 2019; in the first, Daniels is accused of kidnapping and torturing a person and burning him with cigarettes and a blowtorch; the second, he allegedly participated in a kidnapping and home invasion.
Jesse had been offered a plea deal of 60 years with 20 years suspended.
“I just don’t believe any kid should get that long for that. It’s equivalent to the sentences they’re handing out for murderers and people who have been in the system for 20 (or) 30 years, all their life, and my son has never been in trouble before this.” - Jennifer Daniels
Jennifer believes her son is innocent, but even so is concerned he won’t get a fair trial if the case goes to trial and in all likelihood, then, her son is going to be in prison for the rest of her life.
“I don’t have any words. My heart’s completely broken,” she said, visibly emotional. “He’s beside himself. He’s losing all faith and hope and I’ve completely lost all faith in this justice system.”
Jesse’s brother Michael is also frustrated. “When they tell you your brother’s going to be gone for that long, you can’t really explain how you feel. It’s insane. It’s unbelievable,” said Michael.
Jesse’s mother wants to see sentences changed for crimes in Montana: "I just think that they really need to set something and then it be the same for everybody across the board."
The Cascade County Attorney’s Office is prosecuting Jesse’s case. Because it is an ongoing case, County Attorney Josh Racki couldn’t talk about Jesse’s plea deal, but said there are a lot of factors that go into plea deals, including precedents.
“To the extent we can, everyone in a similar situation, which can be very different, is going to get the same sort of offer,” Racki explained.
If a defendant accepts a plea deal, the judge in the case then decides whether to sentence them to what’s in the plea deal or to increase or reduce the sentence up to the mandatory minimum or maximum for the charges.
“The judge is given discretion consistent with the overall sentencing policy of Montana to impose a sentence,” former Cascade County judge Greg Pinski explained.
Pinski said there are many factors judges consider when determining a sentence and says it’s one of the most difficult decisions a judge has to face.
“Any time you’re faced with the potential of depriving someone of their liberty, it’s an incredibly weighty decision and it’s one that requires careful consideration, thought, analysis of all the different factors that are going into this crime and this defendant’s life and what brought them before the court,” said Pinski.
"At the same time, considering the impact of what happened on the community and the victim and balancing all of those competing factors is enormously challenging and, of course, at the end of the day every judge wants to be fair.”
There is a sentencing appeals process for people who are sentenced after being found guilty at trial. Racki said, however, that typically a plea deal can’t be appealed unless the judge chooses a sentence different than what’s in the plea deal.
From Montana Code:
46-18-101. Correctional and sentencing policy.
- (1) It is the purpose of this section to establish the correctional and sentencing policy of the state of Montana. Laws for the punishment of crime are drawn to implement the policy established by this section.
- (2) The correctional and sentencing policy of the state of Montana is to:
- (a) punish each offender commensurate with the nature and degree of harm caused by the offense and to hold an offender accountable;
- (b) protect the public, reduce crime, and increase the public sense of safety by incarcerating violent offenders and serious repeat offenders;
- (c) provide restitution, reparation, and restoration to the victim of the offense; and
- (d) encourage and provide opportunities for the offender's self-improvement to provide rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders back into the community.
- (3) To achieve the policy outlined in subsection (2), the state of Montana adopts the following principles:
- (a) Sentencing and punishment must be certain, timely, consistent, and understandable.
- (b) Sentences should be commensurate with the punishment imposed on other persons committing the same offenses.
- (c) Sentencing practices must be neutral with respect to the offender's race, gender, religion, national origin, or social or economic status.
- (d) Sentencing practices must permit judicial discretion to consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
- (e) Sentencing practices must include punishing violent and serious repeat felony offenders with incarceration.
- (f) Sentencing practices must provide alternatives to imprisonment for the punishment of those nonviolent felony offenders who do not have serious criminal records.
- (g) Sentencing and correctional practices must emphasize that the offender is responsible for obeying the law and must hold the offender accountable for the offender's actions.
- (h) Sentencing practices must emphasize restitution to the victim by the offender. A sentence must require an offender who is financially able to do so to pay restitution, costs as provided in 46-18-232, costs of assigned counsel, as provided in 46-8-113, and, if the offender is a sex offender, costs of any chemical treatment.
- (i) Sentencing practices should promote and support practices, policies, and programs that focus on restorative justice principles.