This story is the first of a four-part series examining extensive sentencing and correctional reforms passed by the 2017 Legislature, aimed at reducing Montana’s prison populations.
HELENA – From prisons to pre-release centers to probationary supervision, Montana has 15,000 criminal offenders on the books – an amount projected to grow in coming years, even though crime rates have been relatively stable or declining.
But in a rare bipartisanship push on a major issue, state lawmakers this year enacted a sweeping set of initiatives designed to reduce the number of Montanans in prison and on supervision.
The main thrust of the reforms is to cut the rate of criminal offenders who, while on parole or probation, violate rules or commit new crimes and then are sent to prison. The main focus is to devise better-targeted treatment and a clear path for offenders to serve their time and get out of the system.
“We know that 90 percent of people (in the system) are released from jail and prison and come back and live in our society,” says District Judge Ingrid Gustafson of Billings, who served on the commission that proposed the reforms. “You want to have people come back and be productive and not be an increased danger to the community.”
Gov. Steve Bullock and his Corrections Department are on board as well, saying mass incarceration is straining state and local budgets, with no real public benefit.
“A direct focus on imprisonment as a solution, I don’t think is the right track,” says Reg Michael, who became state corrections director this summer. “What you’re finding, and what other organizations have found, is it’s just not sustainable.”
Now that the bills are law, Bullock’s Corrections Department faces the daunting task of making it all work – even though it’s just one of the players in a complex system.
Montana’s criminal-justice system is a huge bureaucracy, including law enforcement, courts, jails, prisons and multimillion-dollar private contractors, who provide everything from treatment to incarceration.
“They’ve got an ambitious schedule,” says Mike Thatcher, CEO of the state’s largest private correctional contractor. “In order for all parties to be successful, there needs to be a concerted effort to get this thing moving – judges, county attorneys. … A lot of training needs to take place.
“I’ve been at this for 17 legislative sessions, and then in this one session, I saw more sweeping criminal-justice reform than I have in the previous 16 sessions combined,” Thatcher adds. “It’s a huge undertaking.”
State government spends just over $200 million a year on corrections. That amount doesn’t include millions more spent on courts and local jails.
The changes are supposed to save the state at least $70 million in correctional spending over the next six years, by preventing the projected increase in the prison population and cutting the number of offenders on probationary supervision by as many as 2,600 people.
Out of those savings, $21 million will be spent on various programs to help keep people out of prison.
The major changes include:
- A “risk and needs assessment” for every criminal offender, before sentencing, meant to design specific programs and goals they must achieve to get out of the system, as productive citizens.
Gustafson says in the current system, judges often hand down sentences and rules of probation before specific rehabilitation needs are identified.
“It just seems like we should find out what (offenders) need and then fashion the requirements of what they have to do, to what they need,” she says.
- A full-time, professional Board of Pardons and Parole, which will follow a consistent set of guidelines for paroling inmates who’ve met certain requirements. The newly configured board held its first meeting earlier this month.
- A pretrial assessment of people who’ve been arrested, to determine if they’re a risk and should be jailed or not, before any trial. The intent is to sharply reduce the number of people held in jail – and the harmful effects of unnecessary incarceration.
“What we’re trying to do is reduce the pressure on jails, and save those spots for people who really deserve them,” says Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, who sponsored one of the reform bills. “Don’t put people in jail for dumb stuff – that’s kind of what it comes down to.”
- More supervision of high-risk offenders on probation and parole. Research has shown that concentrating on high-risk offenders in the first months helps prevent them from re-offending, while those considered low-risk don’t need tight supervision.
- Making it less likely offenders will be sent to prison for minor infractions while on parole or probation, by creating required, non-prison sanctions. If someone is sent to prison for repeated minor infractions, the new law limits the return to nine months.
- Removing offenders from supervision, if their record out of prison is clean, after a certain time period. Researchers say if an offender has been out of prison more than three years and has a clean record, the chance of re-offending is extremely low.
State corrections officials say almost one-fourth of offenders on probation – about 2,000 people – have been on supervision for three years or longer.
Some of these steps – the risk-and-needs assessments, or the supervision focus on high-risk offenders, for example – had already started, as initiatives by the Bullock administration.
The new laws, however, make them requirements for whoever’s in charge, with an eye toward creating long-term savings and, ultimately, fewer Montanans in prison and on supervision, while still maintaining public safety.
Michael, the new corrections director, says Montana and the nation have spent a lot of time and money putting people in prison, but haven’t done as well helping them develop the skills to succeed once they get out.
The new laws should help Montana move toward the second goal, he says – although it won’t necessarily be an easy road.
“We won’t be 100 percent successful; that’s just the reality of the business we live in,” he told MTN News. “But I think this will have an effect that will create positive change for individuals. And if we can keep fewer people in jail, than I think the community will benefit from it.”
Part two looks at the new full-time Parole Board, considered a linchpin of the reforms.