Governor Steve Bullock joined District Judge Ingrid Gustafson and leaders from both parties on Wednesday to launch a comprehensive examination of the state’s criminal justice system as Montana faces a growing prison population and costly projections to expand capacity.
Bullock, joined by Senator Cynthia Wolken and Gustafson announced the start of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Montana, which will identify ways to reduce recidivism, curb corrections spending, and increase public safety in the state.
“A thorough examination of our criminal justice system is long overdue,” Bullock said in a press release. “We must determine what is driving the growth in our prison population. We’re at a pivotal moment as our prison population nears capacity, and we must take a proactive and collaborative approach to establishing a more effective system that bolsters public safety.”
Despite a general decline in Montana’s crime and arrest rate from 2008 to 2014, the state’s prison population climbed by 7 percent—from 2,373 to 2,537—over the same period. The review, performed by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, will take a top-to-bottom look at the system, including examining issues such as crime and arrest trends, supervision, and effectiveness of programs intended to reduce recidivism. The CSG Justice Center released an overview with its initial findings from the state to coincide with a two day working meeting to launch the event.
“Among the issues we will consider is Montana’s sharp increase in felony case filings,” Chief Justice Mike McGrath. “The Supreme Court is committed to working with the other branches of government to share case filing and other data as part of this effort.”
Along with the prison population growth, total fund expenditures for overall corrections spending also increased 16 percent from $157 million in 2008 to $182 million in 2014. In addition, the prison population has remained at or near capacity and is projected to reach 109-percent capacity by 2019.
“We’re eager to get to work exploring potential changes in our criminal justice system and how we can reinvest in programs that are proven to work,” said Wolken, who sponsored SB 224 and currently chairs the commission.
The system-wide review will be carried out through collaboration between the Montana Commission on Sentencing and The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has conducted the Justice Reinvestment process with 21 states previously.
“Over the last several years, Department of Corrections staff has worked hard to build a framework that incorporates evidence-based practices, including innovative new approaches like swift and certain offender sanctions, and validated risk and needs assessments,” said Montana Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista. “I’m excited that the Justice Reinvestment process allows us to be part of a broader review that looks at the entire criminal justice system.”
The state’s Commission on Sentencing is a 15-member, bipartisan group created by SB 224, and includes members from all three branches of state government, criminal justice practitioners and tribal community representatives.
“We have to do something now before we’re on the hook for millions more in costs,” Senate President Debby Barrett said. “Once this review is completed, we’ll have a framework on how we can build on what we have, as well as save funds for the taxpayers and keep our citizens safe.”
The commission met for the first time in September and began its second two-day meeting yesterday. Commission meetings will continue throughout 2016, and policy recommendations will be delivered to the Legislature by the end of 2016, in time for the next legislative session.
The CSG Justice Center, in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, will provide on-the-ground technical assistance. Input will also be solicited from other stakeholders, as well, including district judges, county attorneys, public defenders, probation, parole board members, law enforcement officials, and victim advocates.
“This is an unprecedented opportunity for state leaders to use data and research to craft new strategies that will reduce recidivism and increase public safety,” said Adam Gelb, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project. “By analyzing the drivers of prison growth, examining approaches that are working across the country, and engaging stakeholders throughout the criminal justice system, Montana can develop a plan that will decrease crime and incarceration rates.”