This story is the second part of a four-part series examining broad criminal justice and correctional reforms passed by the 2017 Legislature, aimed at reducing Montana’s prison population.
HELENA – For the first time in Montana’s history, the state board deciding parole for thousands of criminal offenders now has full-time members with a background in corrections – a key piece of sentencing reforms enacted by the 2017 Legislature.
Scott Cruse, a former FBI agent and the board’s new chair, tells MTN News that this new board wants to do more to ensure that inmates released from prison succeed on the “outside.”
“It’s important that we have good re-entry programs and ways for (offenders) to become functioning members of society so we can stop this revolving door of putting them back in jail,” he said in a recent interview.
The Legislature’s package of reforms aims to reduce the rate of offenders who return to prison after being released, or when they’re on state supervision on a suspended sentence.
The new Board of Pardons and Parole, created by Senate Bill 64, has five full-time members with an extensive background in corrections or law enforcement. Its first meeting was August.
Before, the board had part-time, volunteer members appointed by the governor. They made decisions on parole based on recommendations by their own staff – recommendations that often differed from those made by prison staffers who worked with inmates.
Now, prison case-workers and the Parole Board will be using the same guidelines, to give inmates a more consistent path to achieving parole and getting ready for life outside prison.
“Everyone who comes before this Parole Board should expect to be treated fairly and consistently,” Cruse said.
Also, Parole Board members will review cases themselves, doing work formerly done by staff.
Montana State Prison Warden Michael Fletcher told MTN News he thinks the new model will be an improvement.
“Before, (the Parole Board) hadn’t been actually involved 365 days a year, and now they’re giving us feedback on what we can do better and there’s more of a collaborative effort between the two entities,” he said..
The new members include Cruse; Annette Carter, who previously was manager of the Department of Corrections’ re-entry program for inmates; Renee Bauer, former executive director of a Nebraska inmate job skill training organization and the Helena Downtown Business Improvement District; Kristina Lucero, an assistant public defender in Missoula; and Darrell Bell, a U.S. Marshall with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Mike Batista, the former director of the state Corrections Department, was also appointed by Governor Bullock to serve on the board temporarily.
Parolee Anthony Valderrama of Helena says having board members with a background in corrections should be an improvement.
“To understand the crime and what somebody needs, you have to understand the person,” he told MTN News. “They are professionals, it’s what they deal with. It’s not like having a farmer from Sidney sitting on the board, (who) has no clue about law and no clue about anything.”
While the board is its own entity, its partnership with the Department of Corrections will be strong, its members say.
“Our end goal is the same, because our piece is re-entry (for inmates), and what we’re assessing is risk and readiness,” said Carter.
Fletcher, the Montana State Prison warden, said the department wants to work with the board to “ensure (inmates) have the successes once they get out in the community,” and not create any “new victims in the community.”
Another key part of the reforms is a requirement that the Corrections Department create a “risk and needs assessment” for every offender, assigning them a level of risk and outlining what they need for treatment or other programs that can help them stay out of prison or succeed once they’re released.
Carter explained that assessment will help streamline the board’s decisions on parole – and hopefully make decisions more consistent, and easier for offenders to know what they must do to be paroled.
“We’re going to be talking the same language and (the Corrections Department) are going to be looking at the programming that we are going to want people to have prior to seeing us,” she said. “The tool also helps us develop plans with the DOC as far as programming for people as far as reducing their risk to the community and for public safety.”
Carter added that members will pay close attention to what sort of support potential parolees have in the community where they might live, and whether it’s necessary to send them to something like a pre-release center, which is more restrictive.
Not only is the Parole Board tasked with doing things differently, but it also must develop how it will measure success – a task it’s just beginning to work on.
“It’s been a long-held belief that the recidivism rate was a measure of success, and I think in a lot of ways it’s still going got be a measure of success,” Cruse told MTN News. “But until we can make that really say it’s an accurate portrayal of how things are working out, we have to get all these changes implemented and working together in concert before we’re really seeing how effective it’s being.”
Recidivism is the rate of offenders who return to prison within three years of being released.
While the details of measuring outcomes are still being discussed, Cruse said the overarching goal is to have the board coordinating its efforts with the entire correctional system, to prepare inmates for release and staying out of prison.
“A year from now, (if) we can all say we are working off the same script, whether you’re in the Department of Corrections, whatever institution you’re in, or here at the parole board, we’re working off the same script when deciding parole hearings, that’s going to be something where I say is a win,” he explained.
Part three examines how these sentencing reforms could offer a better pathway to freedom for people within the correctional system.