This story is the final installment of a four-part series examining extensive sentencing and correctional reforms passed by the 2017 Legislature, aimed at reducing Montana’s prison populations.
BILLINGS – As Montana launches an ambitious push to reduce the number of criminal offenders in its correctional system, a key piece of the puzzle operates outside state government: Private contractors running community-based programs.
The 2017 Legislature passed a half-dozen laws designed to create a clearer path for offenders to avoid prison, or get out of prison and the correctional system, once they meet certain requirements.
How and whether multimillion-dollar programs run by private contractors help meet those goals is part of the discussion.
“We want to make sure that both inside the department, and with contractors, that we have programs that are evidence-based and have the best recidivism-reducing outcomes,” says Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, who sponsored most of the bills.
The rate of “recidivism” usually is measured as the number of inmates who return to prison within three years of leaving.
Contractors who spoke with MTN News said they’re on board with the overall goal, and welcome any scrutiny of their programs.
“We embrace the majority of the legislation,” says Mike Thatcher, CEO of Community, Counseling and Correctional Services Inc. (CCCS) of Butte, the largest private correctional contractor in the state. “(Our) outcomes should be measured. … Programs that are funded should be able to demonstrate they’re delivering they say what they deliver.”
Dave Armstrong, CEO of Alternatives Inc., which operates correctional programs that house or oversee 390 people in Billings, agrees that something must be done to halt the growth in Montana’s correctional system, and says contractors can be part of the solution.
“I think lower recidivism rates is what we’re looking for, so we would be accountable for that, and we welcome that,” he said in a recent interview. “We think we have very good facilities throughout the state.”
Yet he also said Montana already has a respectable recidivism rate, and that the state must use an accurate tool to evaluate programs’ success on keeping people out of prison.
Currently, the state neither requires nor measures any specific recidivism rates for criminal offenders who go through private programs.
Five major contractors operate 17 correctional programs across the state, from prerelease centers to drug-treatment facilities.
These programs currently house nearly 1,500 criminal offenders – about 30 percent of the male and female state inmates in secure facilities across Montana – and consume 23 percent of the state’s correctional budget, or $47 million last year.
The nonprofit companies that run the programs hire lobbyists to press their case at the Legislature and their CEOs often make more than the director of the entire state Corrections Department, which has an annual $202 million budget.
CCCS, the largest private correctional contractor, employs about 400 people in Montana and operates eight treatment, sanction or pre-release sites in Montana that house 700 offenders. It reported $35 million in annual revenue in 2014, according to tax records, and also runs correctional programs in North Dakota and Washington state.
Thatcher, its CEO, told MTN News that correctional programs can be seen as “economic development” – but also said that, in a perfect world, the goal would be to put programs like his out of business.
“I don’t see that happening any time soon,” he adds.
Thatcher says as the Department of Corrections prepares to implement the reforms, his nonprofit company is prepared to offer new programs or beds as needed – and submit to new standards and data-tracking, as long as they’re evenly applied.
“If the bar is getting raised, do it for every part of the system – Public, for-profit, nonprofit,” he says. “Subject us all.”
When it comes to recidivism in Montana, the state Department of Corrections measures it for the overall system, but does not have figures for specific “alternative” programs run by private contractors.
Up-to-date, comparable recidivism rates for other states are hard to come by, but most data indicate that recidivism nationwide is around 40 percent, for offenders returning to prison within three years of being released.
The latest figure for Montana is 38 percent, for offenders who left prison in 2013 and returned in the next three years.
The rate is slightly higher – 43 percent – when Montana looks at offenders released from any correctional facility or program in 2013, and returning within three years, including those run by private contractors.
An analysis by a group helping Montana implement the reforms indicates that during one particular three-year period – 2012 to 2015 – offenders going through privately run non-prison programs appeared to have no better outcomes than those who didn’t.
The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center looked at all 2,046 adult sentences in Montana in 2012, and the path those inmates took over the next three years.
Of the 960 people who ended up in a private, non-prison programs, nearly 28 percent of them eventually went to prison anyway.
Of the 1,346 people placed on probation supervision by the state, only 11.5 percent ended up in prison – including some who went from probation to a private program and then to prison.
Thatcher says CCCS does some of its own tracking of offenders going through its programs, and that he believes its record is a good one – but he’d like to work more closely with the state on data that track the success or failure of offenders as they go through certain programs.
“We don’t have that full data bank, or data base, that the Department of Corrections has,” he says. “That’s where the responsibility needs to lie.”
The Corrections Department has a $500,000 grant to enhance its information-technology systems to help implement the 2017 reforms, including granting more access to contractors to the DOC data system. Specific details of those enhancements haven’t been decided yet, an agency spokeswoman says.
Yet one of the new laws says new or renewed correctional contracts must require contractors to use “evidence-based tools” for people in their programs.
“We are in the process of reviewing some contracts that are expiring shortly, to ensure we meet these requirements,” says Corrections Department spokeswoman Judy Beck.
Still, correctional contractors in Montana often have 20-year contracts, which can’t be changed without agreement from the contractor.
Critics of the system also sometimes point the finger at contractors, saying inmates end up cycling through multiple private programs, taking similar treatment programs again and again, without a good plan that leads to their release.
Armstrong, however, says its up to the state to “call the shots” on what programming it wants for offenders, and to say how they’re released. Contractors such as Alternatives Inc. can provide what’s needed, he says.
“We’re not the decision-makers who decides where (offenders) go,” adds Thatcher. “We don’t have any role in those decisions.”
State corrections officials do make the final decisions on where offenders will go after they leave a program – but pre-release centers have the power to reject referrals from DOC, and do so about 50 percent of the time.
Still, as Armstrong points out, pre-release centers are generally full and have waiting lists.
Bree Derrick, a CSG Justice Center staffer helping Montana implement the new laws, says contractors may be asked to provide additional services in areas where a specific need is identified.
For example, in Pennsylvania, it was found that private contractors needed to provide more mental-health services and domestic-violence intervention, instead of substance-abuse programs, she says.
“They worked to retool that, and actually added those services,” Derrick says.
She also says other states have “performance incentive funding” for correctional contractors, that rewards them for meeting certain goals.
Thatcher says CCCS already is looking at what new services it could provide, such as alternatives to local jails, which are overcrowded across the state. As of this week, almost 350 state inmates were being held in local jails, awaiting placement in prison or another program.
A local prerelease center or other privately run facility could temporarily house offenders instead of jail, allowing them to keep their job and their family together while DOC or other authorities determine which facility or program they end up at, Thatcher says.
Beck says DOC already is preparing “requests for information” for contractors to provide these possible new services.
As changes to the system unfold, correction officials say contractors should expect to be asked to adjust their practices to reflect the goal of getting offenders through the system and returned to the community, more quickly and consistently – and successfully.
“You’ve got to give (offenders) some skills to allow them to be effective when they return to the community,” says Reg Michael, director of the state Corrections Department. “I would like to ensure that we and the treatment-based partners focus on what the established community-correction expectations are.”