HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock held ceremonial signings Wednesday to spotlight legislation to reform Montana’s criminal justice system, calling the 10 bills an “important step.”
The bills use what officials called “evidence-based” practices, which are methods that have been scientifically tested and proven effective, officials said. The bills also will ensure that decisions are data driven throughout the criminal justice system, the governor said during a news conference at the state Capitol.
“Through innovative and sensible solutions, we will 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,” Bullock said.
In November 2015, the Montana Commission on Sentencing began working with the Council of State Government Justice Center to use a data-driven approach to address prison overcrowding, high recidivism and the growing impact of substance use on people in the state’s criminal justice system.
An analysis of Montana’s system revealed the state’s prison population was projected to increase 14 percent by 2023. This growth would have required spending tens of millions of dollars to cover the cost of additional contract beds and up to hundreds of millions of dollars for new prison facilities, officials said. Spending on corrections has already increased by 16 percent since 2008 and now tops $180 million annually.
Under the new policies, Montana will avoid spending an additional $69 million over the next six years to increase prison capacity.
Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, chair of the Montana Commission on Sentencing, sponsored most of the 10 bills.
She called the passage of the bills “a team effort” and also thanked the people who testified, saying the commission “heard a lot of stories on how to spend our money more effectively.”
Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, the Montana Department of Corrections, Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and other supporters of the legislation attended the event.
Also attending was Reginald Michael, the new head of the Department of Corrections.
“I am soundly convinced that this is the right direction for the state of Montana,” he said.
McDermott said the bills will help with overcrowding in the county jail and free up bed space.
He said his jail can hold 400 inmates and that has sometimes gone to nearly 30 over its level and that the new bills would help through measures such as early release for nondangerous nonviolent offenders.
The CSG Justice Center will keep working with the state to provide technical assistance with implementation of the bills.