Racial Disparity Analysis Aims to Improve Data Collection in Montana’s Justice System

July 1, 2021

Following nationwide protests against perceived racial bias in police departments and the criminal justice system more broadly, many states are now looking to improve racial equity in their justice systems. Spurred by the protests and the overrepresentation of Native Americans in Montana’s justice system, the state’s judicial branch is launching a data analysis of racial disparities in the system. This effort builds on previous work conducted in 2015 and 2016 to examine the impact of sentencing policies as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). JRI and the current project are funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

What’s Next

Through the end of the year, staff from The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center will analyze data on pretrial detention and sentencing to the Department of Corrections (DOC) to answer a number of possible questions, such as:

  • How do bail eligibility, bail amount, and pretrial detention rates and length differ by race?
  • How do prison sentences differ by race?
  • How long are people in DOC custody prior to release to the community? Does the length of stay in DOC custody differ by race?
  • How do supervision revocations to prison, jail, and alternative facilities differ by race?

Why It Matters

Native Americans are disproportionately represented in Montana’s criminal justice system. In 2014, Native Americans accounted for 7 percent of the state’s general population but 17 percent of the total correctional facility population. And in 2015, Native Americans accounted for 19 percent of total arrests. These arrests were largely driven by supervision violations and failure to appear in court. Though more recent data is not publicly available, Montana’s judicial branch believes that these disproportionalities still exist and are committed to creating a plan to better measure and address racial inequities.

The Bottom Line

CSG Justice Center staff will deliver a report to the Montana judiciary detailing the results of the data analysis and, if data quality allows, recommendations for how to improve practices to reduce racial disparities at key decision points. Staff will also create a guide to help strengthen court system data collection in the state. The guide will outline data that needs to be regularly collected and analyzed to understand the impact of racial inequality in Montana’s criminal court system. It will provide step-by-step guidance on how to set up this data collection as well as highlight practices that are currently working and should be continued.

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This project was supported by Grant No. 2019-ZB-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

About the Author

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Program Director, State Initiatives
Sara Friedman oversees a portfolio of projects that help state leaders improve outcomes and reduce recidivism by building and implementing technology for data-driven decision-making. Prior to this role, she led teams of CSG Justice Center staff who helped states adopt
and measure research-driven criminal justice policy and practice changes through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Previously, Sara was the director of resource development at an alternative-to-incarceration nonprofit, focusing on grant writing, program development, and building organizational capacity through data collection and program evaluation. Sara earned her BA from University of Pennsylvania and her MPA from New York University.  
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