By Cynthia Wolken and Kimberly Dudik
Earlier this year, we worked across the aisle with colleagues in the Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock to pass a series of bills to reform Montana’s criminal justice system. These reforms included bipartisan, data-driven approaches that save taxpayers money, improve outcomes for offenders, keep Montana communities safe, and provide more treatment options to address underlying mental health and substance abuse disorders.
Now much of the progress Montana has made to use resources more effectively and ensure the successful re-entry of offenders into society and the workforce is at risk. Revenues that fund government are coming in lower than projected, and on the heels of the most expensive fire season Montana has ever seen, the state is facing a budget shortfall.
Governor Bullock only has authority to make cuts in order to balance the budget. And the only areas he is legally allowed to cut are primarily from the Department of Public Health and Human Services, education, and Department of Corrections. The governor has asked for 10 percent budget cut proposals from the Department of Corrections, and if implemented, these cuts would significantly roll back much of the progress we have made and increase long-term costs, including the enormous cost to the taxpayer of building more prison and jail beds. Proposed cuts include:
• Cutting the Probation and Parole Division, resulting in difficulty complying with the 30-day presentence investigation mandate and contributing to county jail overcrowding.
• Halting the transition of a 60-bed Chemical Dependence Unit and decreasing beds in the current program, in the midst of a meth and opioid epidemic in the state.
• Closing the Lewistown Infirmary, which houses sick yet still dangerous sexual and violent offenders, further straining Montana State Prison’s capacity.
• Closing the Youth Transition Center in Great Falls, resulting in direct loss of jobs in Great Falls. These youth offenders would be moved from Great Falls to Pine Hills in Miles City, limiting educational and employment opportunities for this needy population and further straining resources at Pine Hills.
We cannot and should not balance Montana’s budget by sacrificing public safety with cuts that will end up costing taxpayers many more millions in the long run. We are willing to work with Governor Bullock during a special session to find a better path forward and prevent these cuts and encourage our colleagues across the aisle to do the same.
The long-term health and safety of our communities depend on it.