Increasing Prison Numbers Prompt Montana to Review Criminal Justice System

Billings Gazette

By Jayme Fraser

State leaders will review Montana’s criminal justice system, from courts to prison and probation to addiction treatment, in an effort to reverse trends projected to cost taxpayers $82 million over the next nine years.

“Despite our state’s falling crime rates, Montana’s prison population continues to grow and our correctional facilities are over capacity,” Gov. Steve Bullock said during a press event to launch the Justice Reinvestment Initiative led by the Commission on Sentencing. “If we continue on the path we’re on now, we will be faced with a prison population that continues to increase along with increased state spending.”

Montana’s prison population grew 7 percent to 2,537 inmates from 2008 to 2014, in part because of a 29 percent spike in district court felony cases. Over the same period, state spending on corrections rose 16 percent to $182 million in 2014.

In the commission’s first meeting in September, Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista noted that 85 percent of new prison admissions are the result of parole revocations, a number he suggested could be among the highest in the nation.

Chairwoman Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, said the commission will seek to understand what’s driving the increases so it can make recommendations to the 2017 Legislature on how to reduce spending while improving the efficiency of the justice system. Over two days this week, commission members — including legislators, a judge, law enforcement officials, attorneys and a minister who runs a re-entry program — heard testimony on district court caseloads, offender risk assessments, substance abuse treatment, mental health diversion programs, parole and probation, specialty courts and county jails.

“Everything is on the table,” Wolken said. “We have stories from all branches of government. We want to see the data on that and have that drive our policy.”

Montana is not alone.

Dozens of states nationwide have struggled in recent years to curb criminal justice spending through sentencing reform, pretrial diversion programs and bolstered treatment programs. Earlier this month, about 6,000 federal prisoners were released early to relieve pressure on crowded facilities and to shorten sentences for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes at the peak of a 1980s wave to impose tough mandatory minimum sentences, which now are widely criticized as ineffective in reducing crime.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization, will provide technical support and expertise during the commission’s study, as it has done in 21 other states.

Montana also will receive support from The Pew Charitable Trusts and U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

“Typically, this involves reinvesting savings we create from policy changes back into strengthening the system to reduce recidivism and increase public safety,” said Carl Reynolds, senior legal policy adviser at the CSG’s Justice Center. “Along the way we’ll look at how the supervision system works, how well treatment programs work and adhere to best practices, and what we can do to improve the delivery of services.”