Panel approves scaled-back draft of Corrections, public-defender budgets

Posted at 4:53 PM, Feb 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-19 00:18:11-05

HELENA – A legislative committee Monday scaled back requested budget increases for the state Department of Corrections and public defenders’ office, saying criminal-justice reforms should help create savings for both agencies.

“Once those bill start taking effect, it takes a little while to go, but the hope is that ripple effect will hit out even to (the Office of Public Defender) and save in future caseload growth,” Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, told MTN News.

The Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice also voted to draft a bill to examine whether local governments should pay a larger share of growing public-defender costs.

“There are some challenges that we have with ordinances being passed by local cities that are costing the state,” said Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo. “All stakeholders do need to have, as they say, skin in the game, so they’re trying to watch the cost.”

The seven-member panel also wrapped up its work Monday on budgets for the Department of Justice and state courts.

Those recommendations now go to the full House Appropriations Committee, which votes next week on the major spending bill for the state’s 2020-21 budget.

On Corrections, the panel approved a two-year budget of about $450 million – a 1.6 percent increase over the agency’s current budget. The department also had a $3.7 million cost overrun this year.

Regier complimented the agency for a reorganization last year that eliminated one division and shifted personnel to other more-needed spots. But the panel felt the agency should have only an inflationary increase, and hopefully show savings from criminal-justice reforms passed by the Legislature in 2017.

“The whole hope is to get the savings from not incarcerating people who don’t need to be incarcerated,” Regier said.

The panel also approved an $8.5 million increase for the Office of Public Defender budget – about 13 percent higher than its current budget – including about 30 new additional full-time positions.

However, that amount is $4 million less than requested by the office. OPD also had a $7.3 million cost overrun this budget year and has asked to have that covered by the Legislature as well.

Osmundson asked the panel to draft a bill this session to perhaps increase the share of public-defender costs covered by cities and counties, because defendants in their courts often use the service.

Yet committee members and Regier said the bill may simply study the issue and come back with recommendations for the 2021 Legislature.

“My preference right now is just to look at it,” Regier said. “To just drop this (in) and make substantial changes is not the direction to go, but it is a conversation that has to be had.”