By Phil Drake
HELENA – A 15-member panel created by 2017 Legislature to ride herd over a slew of new bills targeted at changing Montana’s criminal justice system had its inaugural meeting Wednesday, with members hearing of the hurdles they face.
One of them was the state budget.
Reginald Michael, director of the Department of Corrections who chaired the meeting of the Criminal Justice Oversight Council, said the real challenge his department was now facing was the recent $3 million budget cut as mandated by Senate Bill 261, which called for certain reductions if revenues are not met.
And last week the governor’s office ordered state departments to prepare for a 10 percent cut due to lower revenues, which Michael said would be a $40 million reduction to the Department of Corrections budget.
“This may significantly challenge us, but there is a way to get some of this work done,” he said.
The council, which met in a conference room at the Residence Inn by Marriott, was assembled in the aftermath of the Commission on Sentencing, which was created by lawmakers in 2015 to look at legal reforms.
Ten bills were passed in the 2017 legislative session ranging from a tiered sentencing structure, revising penalties for certain drug offenses, creating a professional board of pardons and parole and putting a 30-day limit on most presentence investigations in the hopes of moving inmates being held at county jails to state facilities.
Rep. Jimmy Patelis, R-Billings, said judges would have to be on board with the new guidelines for the system to benefit.
He said it did not help ease overcrowding if the reports were completed within 30 days but the inmate was in the county jail for 60 days awaiting sentencing.
Kevin Olson, the state’s probation and parole administrator, said the problem of overcrowding is being made worse by the fact that Montana is in the midst of a drug epidemic that is putting more people in jails and prisons.
He noted the state had 9,070 felony cases in 2013 and 11,700 in 2016, a 29 percent increase. It’s estimated that will hit 12,700 this year, he said.
The state and its reforms are being aided by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a Lexington, Ky.-based nonprofit that has done similar work in 26 other states.
Sara Friedman, a senior policy analyst with the Council of State Governments, gave committee members an overview of the bills, the corrections system and the panel’s goals.
She said the state should apply for a $500,000 federal grant to help implement the changes and aid in monitoring progress.
“Implementation takes time,” she said, noting it for every step forward that there are sometimes steps back.
The committee includes the Department of Corrections director, a DOC employee and representatives from the Montana Supreme Court, the Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Montana Board of Crime Control, a county sheriff appointed by the attorney general, a member of an Indian tribe, a member of the board of pardons and parole, a representative of crime victims and two representatives of community relations provider.
Montana has seen increases in total arrests, district court case filings, a 67 percent increase in jail population between 2011 and 2013 and its prison population is projected to grow 18 percent by 2023.
The recent laws passed are expected to save $69 million in averted costs, have 383 fewer people in prison than estimated for 2023 and have 2,639 fewer people on supervision than forecasted for 2023.
The council is to submit a biennial report to the governor and Legislature by Sept. 1, 2018, which outlines savings, a description of results from criminal justice reforms and any changes due to the council’s work.
During a break in the meeting, Michael said he believed the state was taking the correction step in moving forward with the changes.
“We cannot jail our way out of this problem,” he said.
“The numbers don’t lie,” he said, noting the increases in costs to manage the prison populations.
“This is worth a shot and I think we’ll be better for it,” he said.