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Two years into Montana’s 'justice reinvestment', has much changed?

Criminal-justice reforms meant to slow offender populations
Posted at 10:19 AM, Jan 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-02 11:10:21-05

More than two years into reforms designed to slow, or even reverse, the growth of offenders in Montana’s correctional system, state officials say they see indications of progress.

But most early data show scant change. Prisons and alternative programs for criminal offenders are still full to capacity, and there’s been no reduction in the number of offenders under state supervision outside of prison.

At the close of 2019, nearly 10,400 people are still on supervision in Montana, via parole or probation – a slight increase over the 10,100 people on supervision two years ago.

Another 7,000 people are in Montana prisons, run by the state or local-government and private contractors, or in secure programs run by private contractors, such as prerelease centers. That number is about the same as two years ago.

Admissions to the state prison system at the end of fiscal year 2019 also showed an increase of about 8.5 percent from two years ago, at 2,951 people.

The percentage of those admissions that are repeat offenders – who failed on parole, probation or other programs, and are a specific target of the reforms – has dropped slightly, from 48 percent two years ago to 45.7 percent in 2019. But it’s still not markedly different than in any of the past seven years.

State Deputy Corrections Director Cynthia Wolken, a former state senator who carried many of the reform bills, told MTN News recently that the changes – known as “justice reinvestment” – are still in their formative stages.

State Deputy Corrections Director Cynthia Wolken

She said felony criminal filings are slightly down this year in Montana and that admissions to the system may be leveling off. She also said some of the reforms must be carried out at the local level, such as jail-diversion programs and drug courts.

But she also said that “justice reinvestment” wasn’t necessarily meant to greatly reduce the overall criminal-offender populations under state control.

“We’re not bracing for a huge decline in population,” Wolken said. “We just sort of want it to level off, and prevent spikes and growths, which is where we were headed before justice reinvestment. … Our goal is to reduce growth.”

A key supporter of the reforms said it shouldn’t be surprising that the impact, so far, is less than many had hoped for.

SK Rossi, advocacy and policy director for ACLU-Montana, said the reforms, intended to reduce repeat offenders and reduce supervision of non-violent, low-risk offenders, are a good first step toward revising the system and “should be given time to work.”

SK Rossi, policy and advocacy director, ACLU-Montana

But the Legislature or other sources have failed to adequately finance programs that help ex-cons transition back to the community and remain out of prison, Rossi said.

“There are still a lot of gaps in the system that need to be filled,” Rossi said. “The things that are going to reduce their risk to recidivate are having a stable house, having a stable job, having access to mental health and addiction services. …

“That has not been resourced and funded in any adequate way in Montana, for people who are coming out of prison. And until we do that, our recidivism rates are going to be stagnant.”

“Recidivism” is measured as the percentage of people who return to prison within three years of being released. Since justice reinvestment is barely into its third year, it’s too early to use recidivism as a measuring stick for the program’s success, Wolken said.

Yet the latest state data show that a majority of people entering the prison system – 53 percent in fiscal 2019 – are still return offenders of some type.

That percentage is down from 59 percent two years ago and 63 percent six years ago. But the raw amounts of returning inmates or people failing while on a suspended sentence continues to be high in Montana.

In fiscal 2019, more than 1,300 people entering the prison did so after failing parole, probation or other supervisory programs for offenders or released inmates. That’s compared to about 1,250 two years ago and about 1,200 six years ago.

Of those, as many as 900 a year are sent back to prison for “technical” violations, when offenders break rules of parole or supervisory probation without committing a crime.

Rossi said this number is far too high and indicates there are still “serious problems” with the probation and parole system.

Rossi also said one part of the reforms – releasing people from supervision early, after they meet certain goals – is needlessly bogged down.

State probation officers should be able to OK the early release, Rossi said, but the petitions have to be filed in court and reviewed by a judge.

“There should be no long, arduous judicial process for someone to get early release from probation when they’ve done everything they can to be successful,” Rossi said. “It should be up to the probation-and-parole department to say, `You’ve done it – off you go.’”

Yet prosecutors and judges last year objected to the state filing the requests without more review. The state eventually agreed that the offender had to petition the court for early release from supervision.

As of last October, only 58 offenders had gained early supervision relief – and 500 requests were pending before courts.

“That’s a policy we’ll have to watch and see, if it’s going to have the impact on our supervision population that it was supposed to,” Wolken said.

Rossi also said waiting lists often exist for treatment programs in prison that inmates must complete to be paroled.

State officials said those programs are open to all inmates, so waiting lists may be long, but that they try to prioritize the programs for those waiting to be paroled.

They also said as part of justice reinvestment, the prison is transitioning to some new “evidence-based” treatment programs, and that staff may need to be trained in those programs.

“The department is continuously evaluating its programming to provide the best services possible with existing budget and staffing,” the agency said in a statement.

There are some bright spots in the data, however.

The reforms included an overhaul of the state Parole Board, converting it to full-time, paid members who now do their own analysis of cases, rather than the prior volunteer board that relied on staff.

Annette Carter, who chairs the board, told MTN News that change has led to a more consistent process, whereby inmates understand what programs or other steps they must take to gain parole.

Annette Carter, chair of the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole

“Inmates know that we want them to address certain behaviors that have been shown, through evidence, that they can comply with the rules once they hit the community,” she said. “So it’s not just that gut instinct of `I think this person is going to do well.’”

In its first full year as a professional board, in 2018, the Parole Board granted parole to 794 people, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. It also has been denying parole to far fewer people, because those requesting it are better prepared, Carter said.

She said the board also has begun to analyze why people who were paroled failed, with an eye toward improving programming or other steps to better prepare parolees for life outside prison.

The Department of Corrections also has successfully reduced the number of convicted felons being held in county jails – a goal of the reforms.

When the reform laws took effect, about 450 state felons were staying in county jails. That amount was reduced to as low as 197 by April 2018, and now stands at just over 200.

Wolken said the concerted effort to keep this number low is perhaps one reason why state prisons and other facilities remain full to capacity, because they’re absorbing felons previously held at jails.