4-part series: Montana launching ambitious reforms to slow growth in prison, probation populations

This four-part series examines the extensive sentencing and correctional reforms passed by the 2017 Legislature, aimed at reducing Montana’s prison populations.

PART 1: Montana launches ambitious sentencing reforms, to slow prison populations

Montana has 15,000 criminal offenders on its books — an amount projected to grow in coming years. But in a bipartisan effort, state lawmakers this year enacted a sweeping set of initiatives that aim 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 end up in prison, after being placed on probation or parole, by using better-targeted and better-coordinated treatment and a clear path for offenders to serve their time and get out of the system.

It’s an ambitious undertaking that involves not only the Corrections Department but also the entire criminal-justice system, from police to judges to probation officers to private correctional contractors. Those involved say it’s a huge task — and that the results won’t be known for some time.

PART 2: New professional parole board aims to ensure inmates succeed after prison 

A key part of the criminal justice and correctional reforms during the 2017 Legislature include creating the new, professional parole board with extensive criminal justice knowledge. The board will use new tools and work with the Department of Justice to create a clear path for inmates and render consistent decisions.

PART 3: Ex-cons: Sentencing reforms could offer better pathway to freedom

Criminal offenders in Montana sometimes spend years on probation, even after they’ve had a clean record, a job, and an uneventful life for some time. Part of the reforms passed by the 2017 Legislature would free them from that supervision — a move that offenders say is a step in the right direction.

But two former offenders who spoke with MTN News say the system — and, society in general — still have a lot of roadblocks that need to be removed or altered to help ex-cons successfully re-enter life after prison and probation.

PART 4: Private contractors a key part of correctional reforms

As Montana launches an ambitious push to reduce the number of criminal offenders in its correctional system, private contractors running multimillion-dollar parts of the system are a vital link in those changes.

State corrections officials say they want to make sure the prison system and its contractors are on the same page of creating a clearer path for offenders to avoid prison, or get out of prison and the correctional system, once they meet certain requirements.

Contractors who spoke with MTN News said they’re on board with the overall goal, and welcome any scrutiny of their programs. But they also say it’s up to the state to call the shots.