MT corrections officials change key part of sentence-reform package

Posted at 4:25 PM, May 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-17 18:25:41-04

HELENA – State corrections officials have made some changes to a key part of last year’s sweeping sentencing reforms, after prosecutors and judges objected to the process of easing supervision of certain criminal offenders on suspended or deferred sentences.

The program, which could cover hundreds of felons in Montana, calls for releasing them from state supervision if they’ve had a clean probation record for as little as nine months.

Some district judges have been refusing to consider requests for supervision-release and local prosecutors even threatened legal action, citing numerous concerns with the process.

In response, the state this week unveiled some changes, including formal notification to prosecutors of an offenders’ request for less supervision.

“I really do want to emphasize that I think we’re going to get through this, and while there are implementation hiccups, I view the county attorneys and judges as our partners in this,” Deputy Correction Director Cynthia Wolken told MTN News earlier this week.

A judge must sign the final order granting an offender release from supervision.

About 250 offenders have been granted the release since last July, although not all of those are a result of the new law, the Corrections Department said.

Department spokeswoman Judy Beck said Friday that hundreds more may be eligible, but it’s not possible to determine an exact number. The department is reviewing offenders on probation on a case-by-case basis, to see if they’ve met the requirements in law, she said.

Wolken, a former state senator who sponsored most of the 2017 sentencing-reform bills, said the “conditional release from supervision” is a vital part of the sentencing-reform package.

It’s designed to identify probationers who are doing well, after a certain time period, and no longer require them to meet monthly or regularly with their probation officer.

Removing these lower-risk offenders from supervision also reduces the caseload for probation officers, thus allowing them to spend more time with higher-risk offenders who need the attention, Wolken says.

“In order to allow our probation officers to really focus on the people who need (supervision), we need to figure out a way to let the people who are doing well, are employed, paying taxes, paying child support and have housing – to let those people move on with their lives,” she said.

Local prosecutors, however, raised objections with the program as soon as it started last fall.

Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said probation officers were filing requests to release offenders from supervision without even informing prosecutors, and that the Department of Corrections wasn’t sharing details on the evaluation tool it used to assign a level of “risk” to certain offenders.

The risk level determines when the offender can be considered for release from supervision. For example, an offender deemed “low risk” can be recommended for release after nine months, while an offender deemed “high risk” must be on supervision for at least two years before he or she can be off it.

“It’s played out pretty badly, in my mind,” he told MTN News.

Judges objected to probation officers filing the requests in court, saying the officers essentially were practicing law without a license.

Judges also raised concerns about how the release from supervision could be seen as altering their original sentence.

State District Judge Mike Menahan of Helena noted that if a judge sentenced someone to a lengthy period of probation, he or she probably wouldn’t expect that person now to be eligible for a much shorter period of supervision.

“You’re introducing a whole new model here, by which someone who’s on a suspended sentence can petition a court to no longer be supervised,” he said. “And that’s a little bit of a change in mindset for us.”

Still, Menahan told MTN News that he’s open to using the “science-based, statistical approach to corrections” that underlies the program.

Under the changes announced this week, eligible offenders will file the requests themselves in court, rather than probation officers, and may enlist the help of the Office of Public Defender. County prosecutors will be notified.

To be eligible for release from supervision, an offender must have paid any court-ordered restitution and complied with all conditions of his or her probation.

Wolken also said the department is willing to share more information with prosecutors about the “risk-assessment tool” that the agency developed to assign risk levels to offenders.