Report: Native Americans Make up Disproportionate Share of Rising Montana Prison Population

The Missoulian

By James Dehaven

Montana is putting more people in prison than it releases – not necessarily because there are more criminals, but largely because the state keeps arresting the same people over and over.

That’s according to a long-awaited report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization contracted by state legislators to help figure out how to reduce prison spending and jail crowding.

The report, presented Tuesday to lawmakers and others appointed to Montana’s Commission on Sentencing, found a 12 percent rise in arrests between 2009 and 2015, despite an 18 percent decline in property and violent crimes between 2000 and 2014.

It also found Native Americans represent a disproportionate share of those totals, accounting for nearly one in five arrests while making up only 7 percent of the state’s population.

Native Americans represented an even greater share, more than one-quarter, of those cuffed for parole violations and failure to appear in court – offenses that combined to account for nearly half of the statewide spike in arrests.

None of that should qualify as news to state officials, said Jim Taylor, legal director at the ACLU of Montana.

Taylor said the Montana Department of Corrections has more than three decades of data illustrating Native Americans’ lopsided share of Montana’s arrest total.

What state leaders don’t seem to know is why, or how they plan to change it.

“There’s literally been no interest in drilling down and really seeing what’s going on,” Taylor told the commission. “We think there needs to be more study done by the state and more training throughout the system on cultural differences and the effects of historical trauma.”

LeAnn Montes, an attorney with the Chippewa Cree tribe, recommended a similar review of causes underlying Native arrest totals.

She went on to call for beefed-up sentences to help prosecute repeat offenders, along with licensed prosecutors and public defenders to try tribal cases.

Attorney and commission member Majel Russell said many Native offenders simply can’t comply with the terms of their probation. She encouraged tweaks to streamline those requirements, including efforts to defray the offender-paid cost of drug tests, mental health evaluations and often lengthy drives some have to make to meet with a parole or probation officer.

Tribal Police Chief Allen Primeau said he wanted to brainstorm solutions with Utah Rep. Eric Hutchings, who earlier told the commission his state managed to shed 700 prisoners through efforts to distinguish between hardcore, repeat lawbreakers and “certain people who are not really criminals, they’ve just done criminal things.”

Hutchings said Utah reduced hundreds of penalties down to misdemeanors and adopted new programs to better address parolees’ mental health and substance abuse needs, instead of just throwing parole violators back in jail.

He expects those programs – total cost: $14.5 million – will pay for themselves by the end of next year.

Hutchings offered to simply give Montana sentencing and supervision guidelines Utah used to achieve those savings.

Commission members didn’t exactly fall over themselves to take up the offer, though Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista said he “sort of” liked the concept behind other prison diversion efforts recently undertaken in Seattle and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where cops are increasingly tasked with on-the-spot drug interventions, as opposed to arrests.

Sentencing commission members plan to reconvene for meetings in June and September, before passing along final recommendations to state lawmakers in December.