Panel suggests change in how offenders apply for early release from supervision

Posted at 6:16 PM, Dec 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-06 20:16:39-05

HELENA – A state criminal-justice panel agreed Wednesday to support proposed changes that restrict how Montana parolees and probationers can seek to get off state supervision.

But some members of the panel and a “working group” that proposed the changes said they’re concerned the changes might make it harder to achieve the goal of reducing the number of offenders on supervision.

“Unless there is some sort of way of guaranteeing that these (requests) are going to get to a judge … I don’t think it’s going to fill the expectations that everybody had about getting these (release) numbers up,” said Peter Ohman of the Office of the State Public Defender.

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert, a working group member who supported the proposal, said the final language could be improved as the 2019 Legislature considers whether to adopt it.

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert

Yet the release-request process, which has been criticized by prosecutors and judges, still needs to be standardized, he said Wednesday, and the proposal is a step toward doing that.

“We really need to make sure that we have a process that’s consistent statewide first,” Lambert said at a meeting of the Criminal Justice Oversight Council. “The simple fact is that all of these are being treated differently, by district judges … all around the state. That’s not fair.”

The council, which is monitoring criminal sentencing reforms enacted in Montana in 2017, voted to support the proposed change. The changes to state law will be presented to the 2019 Legislature, which convenes next month.

Early release from supervision is a key part of the sentencing reforms.

Reg Michael, the council chair and director of the state Corrections Department, voted for the proposed changes. But he also said the ultimate goal is to remove from state supervision the offenders who no longer need it.

MT Corrections Director Reg Michael

“If we can move ourselves closer to identifying those who don’t need to be under supervision for 10, 15, 25 years, I think we’ll find the benefit of that somewhere within that process,” he said.

Under the law enacted last year, if an offender on parole or probation had good behavior for a certain time period – nine to 24 months, depending on his “risk level” – probation officers are required to ask a judge to discharge those offenders from supervision.

Some judges and prosecutors objected, saying the law allowed probation officers to act as attorneys, filing documents in court.

The proposed change says only a prosecutor or the defendant, or the defendant’ attorney, can file the request, and does not make it mandatory. It also says the state or the county attorney must attempt to locate the victim of the crime and give them written notice of the request.

Ohman, a member of the working group, said most people who want to make the request are poor and can’t afford an attorney.

He also noted that under the proposed changes, “there’s not a trigger or a hammer forcing the probation officer to move (the request) that far, and there is no hammer to get it to the judge.”