Guest Opinion: Why Montana Needs Sentencing Reform

Billings Gazette

By Kris Hansen and Cynthia Wolken

Last legislative session, we served on the budget subcommittee tasked with overseeing the budget of the Department of Corrections. We became concerned with significant growth in this agency’s budget and created the Sentencing Commission that, for the first time in more than 20 years, took an entry-to-exit look at our criminal justice system.

Why the big growth in our inmate population when our crime rate has been stable and relatively low for years? Our goals were to improve public safety and service to victims, hold offenders accountable, and be better stewards of your tax dollars.

A number of policies came out of our commission that are worthy of the Legislature’s support:

  • We devised a pretrial supervision system to help county sheriffs address the overcrowding in their jails, freeing up beds for high risk offenders who need to be behind bars.
  • We propose investing in up-front behavioral health services so that we can stop cycling people with addiction or unmet mental health needs through our jails and prisons. Our communities are safer when people do not have to commit a felony to get treatment, creating new victims in the process.
  • We also propose allowing folks to get substance abuse treatment from peer support specialists, people working in communities who can help others through their own experience getting and staying sober.
  • We support modernizing the board of pardons and parole and implementing parole guidelines, giving victims and communities more predictability in the process and saving bed space for those who are higher risk of re-offending. Several other policies propose improvements in other critical areas.

If we do not act, we are on course to build and run another prison — we have heard loud and clear from our constituents that they do not want to be on the hook for a new facility for decades to come. By making some upfront changes and investments, we project taxpayers will save $82 million over the next six years, with an investment of just a fraction of that. This is money that could be spent on infrastructure, schools, or be freed up back to the taxpayer.

While our bills are unique to Montana, other states have had similar success with this approach. As a result of justice reinvestment bills in Idaho, $1.8 million was returned to their general fund this year, they closed a unit at their prison, and were able to stop paying other states to house overflow prisons, all without an increase in crime rates.

To learn more about the Sentencing Commission bills to be introduced, please go to leg.mt.gov. It was a pleasure working together to create bipartisan solutions that move our state forward, keep our communities safer, and wisely use our limited resources.