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Legislature asking MT Dept. of Corrections for details on reform results

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Posted at 7:53 AM, Mar 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-30 10:46:21-04

HELENA — More than three years into an overhaul of Montana’s criminal sentencing laws, the Legislature is preparing to ask the Corrections Department for extensive reporting on whether rehabilitation programs are working – including a rewritten definition of “recidivism.”

“There was a fair amount of frustration that there really hasn’t been good progress made, to make determinations about what programs are working and are reducing recidivism,” said Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings.

Mercer is sponsoring House Bill 693, which he presented to the House Appropriations Committee on Monday.

Among other things, HB693 would require detailed reports from the Corrections Department on the success, or failure, or criminal offenders going through, and exiting, the correctional system.

Mercer, who chairs the subcommittee that examined the Corrections Department budget, said one of the biggest frustrations of veterans of the panel is the agency’s failure to address or accurately measure the rate at which offenders return to prison after being released – known as “recidivism.”

He also said subcommittee members don’t believe the agency’s definition of recidivism is consistent or adequate – so they wrote a new one into HB693.

As defined in HB693, a “recidivist” would be anyone sentenced for a felony crime within six years of being sentenced for a previous crime and whose prior sentence had expired in that time, or who had been released from supervision.

Currently, the Corrections Department defines recidivism as anyone who returns to prison in Montana within three years of being released – although even that definition sometimes is subject to interpretation.

Corrections Director Brian Gootkin, who attended Monday’s meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, said the agency will continue to work with Mercer on the language of HB693.

The committee took no immediate action on HB693, which is a companion bill to the main state budget bill, HB2 – but it must be reported out within the week, to meet a deadline for sending it to the Senate.

The introductory paragraphs of the bill say the Legislature is “concerned” that the Corrections Department is not measuring the effectiveness of its programs – including those administered by private contractors, who run many treatment and rehabilitation programs.

It also points specifically to the 2017 sentencing reforms known as “justice reinvestment,” which were intended to reduce prison populations by reducing recidivism and getting low-risk offenders off supervision more quickly.

“This work … appears to be unaddressed or incomplete,” the bill says. “Moreover, the Department of Corrections’ definition of recidivism is an inadequate measure for the determination of its programming.”

“This `whereas’ clause really focuses on the fact that although `justice reinvestment’ was designed to study this, we think there is a lack of progress in terms of the study of that,” Mercer said Monday.

HB693 also would require Corrections to report on why some drug-treatment beds may be going unfilled, the effectiveness of a rental-voucher program for released felons, the lack of vocational-training programs at the Montana Women’s Prison, and progress on transferring convicted felons from local jails to state facilities.