Montana state Sen. Cynthia Wolken, who played a key role in the 2017 enactment of sweeping criminal-sentencing reforms in the state, will be the state’s new deputy director of corrections.
State Corrections Director Reginald Michael announced Wolken’s hiring on Tuesday and said her role in the reforms “will prove invaluable to the (Department of Corrections) as we continue moving forward.”
Wolken, a state senator representing District 48 in Missoula County, told MTN News she’s looking forward to being part of the Corrections leadership team implementing the reforms, which are designed to reduce the number of people held in prison and jails in Montana.
“I think the leadership team will all be focused on implementation, and making sure we come back into the next Legislature with the fiscal progress, and progress on implementation, as we can,” she said in an interview.
Wolken, an attorney, chaired the 2015 Commission on Sentencing, which spent 18 months coming up with a package of reforms to state sentencing laws. She then sponsored many of the bills that enacted the reforms in 2017.
The changes include a new full-time Board of Pardons and Parole, efforts to reduce the number of state inmates held in county jails, and new protocols to prevent criminal offenders on parole or probation from returning to prison.
Wolken said a key focus will be a system of “interventions” that attempt to help offenders succeed outside the prison and avoid or correct behaviors that violate terms of their probation or parole.
“But all of these (reforms) are sort of moving together,” she told MTN News. “We just want to make sure we’re moving it together and communicating with all of the different parts of the justice system.”
Wolken will succeed former Deputy Director Loraine Wodnik, who retired last month. Wolken starts the new job Wednesday at an annual salary of $117,790.
She said she’ll be moving to Helena permanently next month and will resign her Senate seat in February. The Missoula County Commission will appoint a replacement, drawn from names submitted by the Missoula County Democratic Central Committee. The replacement will have to run this year for re-election.
State Rep. Nate McConnell of Missoula -- who also sponsored one of the sentencing-reform bills in 2017 -- announced Tuesday that he'll run for Wolken's Senate seat.
Wolken won election to the seat in 2014 and would have been up for re-election this year. Her district includes northwest Missoula and the Clark Fork River Valley northwest of the city.
Wolken has a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis and is a former Missoula City Council member. She also drafted a city-county jail diversion plan for Missoula, to address jail overcrowding there.
Wolken said the Corrections Department is in a “unique position” not only to carry out the reforms to but also to help the state with its revenue problems, by saving money by keeping more offenders out of expensive prison and jail cells.