By Whitney Bermes
Montana’s prison population is over capacity, growing and continuing to put pressure on local jails, but a package of bills before the Legislature this session aims to reverse that trend.
The 12 pieces of legislation, nine of which are still alive, hit a wide array of issues among Montana’s criminal justice system, with the goal of averting growth in the state’s prison and jail populations, while increasing public safety, improving the criminal justice system and reducing recidivism.
The bills are the product of a bipartisan interim committee that spent 13 months studying Montana’s sentencing policies and practices, identifying strategies to reduce recidivism and coming up with legislation to help take the burden off the state’s prisons and jails.
That committee, the Commission on Sentencing, was put together at the behest of the 2015 Legislature, which passed a bill creating the interim study.
The 15-person commission — which included legislators, judges, public defenders and others — worked with the national nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center to study Montana’s correctional systems and craft their proposals for this legislative session.
What the study found was a criminal justice system bursting at the seams.
Montana’s prison population increased 11 percent between 2008 and 2015 and is projected to grow another 13 percent by 2023, according to a final report to the sentencing commission.
The report noted that:
- Arrests in Montana increased 12 percent between 2009 and 2015, mainly due to an increase in drug-related offenses as well as arrests for revocations, violations and failures to appear in court.
- Those drug-related arrests increased 62 percent in that time period, accounting for 53 percent of the increase in total arrests.
- Filings of felony cases in District Courts across the state increased 29 percent to 9,339 cases in 2014.
- The time it takes between a guilty plea or conviction to a sentence in a felony case increased from an average of 77 days in 2012 to 123 in 2015, contributing to longer stays in jail.
- Admissions to the state’s prisons from alternative facilities have also increased.
“We have to do something different,” said Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, chair of the Commission on Sentencing and sponsor of most of the bills. “And these bills represent something different.”
All told, the package of bills proposes spending $1.5 million, a price tag that Wolken is confident “more than pays for itself” in savings for counties and for the Montana Department of Corrections.
The final report for the Commission on Sentencing estimates that, if all the bills are passed, it could save the state at least $59 million in contract bed costs, $11 million in costs to hire more supervision officers, and even more in construction and operation costs for building new correctional facilities between 2018 and 2023.
And the bills could reduce the prison population by 383 and the number of overall people on Department of Corrections supervision by 2,639, the report estimates.
The DOC supports the commission’s agenda.
“The entire package needs to be considered as a whole,” said Adrienne Slaughter, the DOC’s government relations director. “There are many complicated issues that are feeding into the pressures in our criminal justice system.”
Here is a look at the legislation:
Revamping the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole
A cornerstone piece of legislation in the package is a bill that proposes big changes to the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole.
“I think this one is very critical to modernizing our criminal justice system in Montana,” Wolken said.
Currently, the board comprises appointed volunteers who decide hundreds of cases each month. The bill proposes hiring a full-time board. It would also require the board to adopt a new set of policies and guidelines to direct decisions going forward.
“This would really take your parole board to the next level and professionalize the way they do business,” said Carl Reynolds with the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Wolken said citizens complained to the commission about what they saw as arbitrary decisions by the current board, the transparency of the process, and more.
The bill flew through the Senate and is awaiting a second reading in the House.
“Cleanups” of criminal sentences
Proposing a number of “cleanups,” House Bill 133 would change numerous sentences for an array of crimes.
HB 133 reduces penalties for a number of misdemeanors and drug offenses, creates a tiered sentencing structure for theft-based crimes and redefines a “persistent felony offender,” a designation used to increase prison sentences.
The hefty legislation reduces jail and prison time for a wide swath of crimes, from misdemeanors like disorderly conduct to felony drug possession or distribution.
The DOC supports the bill. Slaughter said people who would have otherwise been in jail on some of the less serious offenses addressed in this bill would now be out and able to work and, hopefully, pay restitution to any victims.
“Those people need to be out working,” she said.
Former state senator Kris Hansen, who was vice chair of the sentencing commission, said the legislation “tightens up” sentences.
“We want judicial discretion, but we want sanity in the system, too,” she said.
The bill passed 91-9 in the House on its second reading and is awaiting its final vote on the House floor.
Grants for pre-trial, diversion programs
This bill would create grant programs to help counties create pre-trial services as well as prosecution diversion programs, as well as create a pre-trial risk assessment for defendants.
Wolken said the bill would help county jails address overcrowding issues.
“They’re all sort of bursting at the seams. As the same time, voters are not passing jail bonds,” Wolken said. “They want policy solutions.”
The bill passed the Senate. Amendments are being working on by a joint committee.
Streamlining pre-sentence investigation reports
This legislation hopes to streamline the process for pre-sentence investigation reports.
A pre-sentence investigation report is prepared after a person is convicted of a felony. The comprehensive report gives judges information on the defendant’s background, mental health and substance abuse. It includes statements from victims.
“Right now, it’s taking a really long time to get those done,” Wolken said.
And because the process is lengthy, defendants take up room in county jails longer before being sentenced.
“We want them to be done sooner so people can be on their way,” Wolken said.
The bill would require pre-sentence investigation reports to be done within 30 days, require the person preparing the report to use standardized assessments, and pay for new Department of Corrections employees specifically trained to prepare these types of reports.
The bill has passed the Senate and is currently in committee in the House.
Revising laws for defendants on supervision
This bill revises the process for revoking a deferred or suspended sentence for violations on non-violent offenses, allowing a probation and parole officer to petition to end a sentence early and creating a conditional discharge that requires less supervision. It’s all in an attempt to get offenders off supervision quicker.
The bill proposes a sanction regimen distinguishing between “compliance violations,” for probationers and parolees, such as being late for a meeting with a supervising officer, and more serious violations like getting charged with new crimes or absconding from supervision, Reynolds explained.
“The Department of Corrections is aware of the need for hard beds in the system and isn’t advocating for a soft on crime approach,” Slaughter testified. “However, we must reserve our valuable and strained resources for those individuals we’re afraid of, not those we are disappointed in.”
The bill passed the Senate and has been referred to the House Appropriations Committee.
Helping felons find housing
To address lack of housing for inmates who are being released from prison and other DOC programs, this bill would create a housing grant program, provide rental vouchers for certain offenders, and keep data on homelessness to track the progress of this program.
Lack of housing for felons can lead to re-offending, Wolken and others argued. Often, offenders are denied parole due to lack of housing, keeping them in prison longer and costing the taxpayers more, Wolken said.
The bill has passed both the House and Senate and is headed to the governor’s desk.
More funding opportunities for domestic violence intervention
A bill that has already passed both houses and awaits the governor’s signature would help fund domestic violence intervention programs in rural counties.
As part of Montana’s sentencing guidelines, offenders convicted of partner-family member assault must get treatment in the form of batterers’ intervention programming.
While larger cities such as Missoula and Billings have folks who specialize in this program and can offer classes, in more than half the other counties there are no providers.
“We’re asking (rural judges) to order something as a condition of sentencing that doesn’t actually exist. And that’s a problem,” Wolken said.
The Montana Board of Crime Control has a small fund of about $125,000 annually from marriage license fees that is uses to administer competitive grants for domestic violence intervention programs.
SB 67 would expand that program to let rural counties apply for grant funding specifically for batterers’ intervention programs.
Deb Metussci, director of the Montana Board of Crime Control, said domestic violence offenses rose 19 percent between 2010 and 2015 with approximately 500 additional offenses reported in that time period.
“The need for a domestic violence intervention program like this is important,” she said.
Studying how to increase access for tribes
Montana is home to seven reservations and 12 tribes with American Indians making up 7 percent of the state’s population.
However, American Indians account for 27 percent of all arrests that relate to failure to appear for court or violations of conditions of community release.
While these issues came up during the Commission on Sentencing’s interim work, Wolken said the group believed they needed a closer look.
“This is just such a big issue. There needed to be a lot more work on this than we had time for in the sentencing commission,” she said.
Senate Joint Resolution 3 would create an interim committee that could specifically study American Indians who are on supervision and find ways to revise supervision structures, form partnerships with tribes and come up with legislation for the next Legislature to tackle these issues.
The resolution has passed the Senate as well as the House Judiciary Committee.
Supporting peer supports
To help folks who suffer from chemical dependency or mental health disorders, this bill creates certification requirements for behavioral health peer support specialists.
A peer support specialist are themselves in recovery from chemical dependency or have a mental health disorder and provide support to others with similar behavioral health disorders.
SB 62 gives the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services the power to set up licensing and training requirements for these types of peer supports.
The bill has passed both houses and awaits the governor’s signature.
Not every bill proposed by the Commission on Sentencing survived. A couple were tabled early in the legislative session.
One of those bills would have required that the 18 facilities the state contracts with to provide pre-release housing and addiction treatment be licensed with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Another would have increased the benefits available to victims through the state’s Crime Victim Compensation program.
The program helps victims with money for lost wages, medical and funeral expenses as well as mental health counseling.
Eligibility for victims is limited, however, to victims who report the crime to law enforcement within 72 hours and claims filed with the program within one year of the date of the crime.
SB 66 would have increased the time in which to file a claim to two years, upped the maximum amount available for funeral expenses and provided financial help for victims to assist with cleaning up a crime scene and moving costs.