By Ashley Nerbovig
Montana has committed several million dollars to fund criminal justice reform measures passed by the 2017 Legislature, but federal government funding to aid future efforts is not yet a sure thing.
Friday, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that included about $25 million in funding for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. That effort helps state and local governments conduct data-driven analyses of their criminal justice systems and adopt policies meant to reduce corrections spending and increase public safety.
A bipartisan group of members of Congress has signed a letter committing to funding the justice reinvestment, although President Donald Trump’s budget shows a possible cut of about $3 million for the initiatives.
Montana is expecting to receive up to $500,000 in federal funds to help pay to implement the new policies with the help of Council of State Governments’ Justice Center staff as they work with Montana officials, said Bree Derrick, program director for the justice center.
Over the next six years, these initiatives are meant to reduce the jail population by about 380 prisoners and save about $69 million in criminal justice spending.
Justice center staff will have two years to help Montana implement the policies.
“The first 12 to 18 months are pretty intensive,” Derrick said.
After that though, justice center staff take a back seat as the Department of Corrections takes on a bigger role, she said.
Montana is one of 10 states getting assistance from the justice center as the state tries to reduce criminal justice spending and recidivism. Montana has budgeted $3 million to:
• pay for additional probation and parole officers in 2018 and 2019,
• establish grant programs that would fund local pretrial services, diversionary programs and supportive transitional housing for offenders,
• create standards for both mental health and addiction treatment programs, and
• fund a full-time parole board.
The Montana Department of Corrections worked closely with the justice center and the Legislature to create the justice reform bill package. The DOC has been pushing for some type of reform since 2013, when increasing prison populations began to strain the department’s resources, said Reginald Michael, who replaced Mike Batista this year as corrections director.
“No question, this is a big lift, especially with more offenders coming into Montana’s corrections system on the front end,” Michael said.
While some of the changes won’t take place until next year, such as the creation of a full time parole board, projections done by the center show Montana’s prison population should rise more slowly by 2018, and drop by 2023. One of the group’s projections shows Montana saving up to $5 million in averted costs as early as 2018.
The justice center has previously worked with 17 other states. The timing varies as to when those states start seeing results, Derrick said. However, data are collected throughout the process and if the reductions in offender population and costs aren’t where they were projected to be, Derrick said the plan can be adjusted.
After the two years of implementation, the data collection will continue under the supervision of the Department of Corrections.
The justice center worked with Idaho in 2014 to begin reinvesting the state’s criminal justice dollars. By the end of 2015, Idaho saw its prison population drop by about 3 percent and the justice center estimated the state saved about $14 million in averted costs. It was able to return $1.8 million to the state’s general fund, close a unit at the Idaho Correctional Center and start bringing back Idaho prisoners housed in out-of-state prisons.
At the same time, Shoshone County Prosecuting Attorney Keisha Oxendine has criticized the organization for not reviewing the entire criminal history of an offender before releasing each offender back into the population. In April, Oxendine told the Shoshone News-Press she was concerned the parole board was too focused on releasing prisoners as part of the reinvestment initiative and not on properly screening the offenders coming before them.
Out of all the states the justice center has worked with, only one saw its crime rate increase after the policies went into effect, Derrick said. If someone with an extensive criminal history is released and then commits a crime, people will criticize the policies.
If that happens, she said, the justice center will do a critical case review to see if there are any policies that need to be changed.
The center doesn’t come to states with a set formula, Derrick said. The policies really need to be state-based and reflect what’s already in place, she said.
For instance, North Dakota’s Legislature approved reinvestment policies as well, but focused more heavily on funding behavioral health services, Derrick said.
While Montana could use a greater amount of resources when it comes to mental health and addiction treatment, it has considerably more re-entry services for inmates upon release, and treatment programs than many other states, she said. That is why Montana’s reinvestment policies focused more on how to properly screen and treat offenders, rather than creation of new programs, Derrick said.
However, the Department of Corrections is expected to expand at least some of its therapeutic services in the next few years as it transitions the Treasure State Boot Camp facility in Deer Lodge into a therapeutic treatment center. The boot camp was required until the law was changed this past legislative session.
The facility is on the Montana State Prison campus and while the prison already provides chemical dependency treatment, by moving the program to a separate facility, the department will be able to provide a more effective and better model of treatment, said Judy Beck, communications director for the Montana Department of Corrections.
“We feel it is important to focus our actions on evidence-based practices and on outcomes,” Michael said. “With the Legislature’s support for these criminal justice reinvestment principles, we have an opportunity in Montana to make progress across the entire criminal justice system, and that’s exciting.”