By Mikenzie Frost
HELENA – Governor Steve Bullock put pen to paper to ceremoniously sign a handful of bills aimed at changing protocols within the Department of Corrections.
Ten bills were passed with bipartisan support during the 2017 Legislative Session and plan to use evidence based programs to help reduce the number of people incarcerated in Montana.
Bullock said Wednesday during the event that Montana’s prison population is projected to increase by 14 percent by 2023 and this ‘suite of bills’ will prevent the state from spending an additional $69 million over the next six years to increase prison capacity.
“After 30 years working in the federal probation system, I’m convinced that focusing our actions on evidence-based practices and on outcomes is the right direction to take to improve public safety,” said the new Montana Department of Corrections Director Reg Michael.
Democrat Senator Cynthia Wolken from Missoula sponsored eight of the ten bills, including Senate Bill 60 and 63. Senate Bill 60 requires a risk and needs assessment be performed for every person in the prison system.
This RNA is set to be done prior to a sentencing hearing and probation and parole officers evaluate and categorize each person, either as a high, medium, moderate or low risk offender.
“We know that if we give our probation and parole officers the tools they need to do their jobs effectively and provide expanded access to diversion programs we can prevent the types of crimes and violations that are driving increasing populations in our prison system,” Wolken explained.
Senate Bill 63 works with Senate Bill 59 to create an intervention grid which outlines specific guidelines for sentencing after someone violates their probation or parole.
This grid must be consulted before a parole and probation officer decides what kind of sanction must be implemented.
Governor Bullock said these new laws will help overhaul the Department of Corrections in hopes of improving outcomes for offenders.
“These pieces of legislation allow us to implement data driven approaches to prison overcrowding, high recidivism, and high rates of drug use and abuse among people in the state’s criminal justice system,” Bullock explained.
Senate Bill 64 was also passed, creating a five member professional parole board and are salaried state employees. Prior to this, the board was compiled of volunteer members.