On Wednesday night, Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed four criminal justice reform bills that seek to cut costs and reduce recidivism.
The newly signed legislation will require the Office of Public Defender to put clients in touch with social workers, allow jail inmates free phone calls to their attorneys, eliminate the requirement to appoint a public defender for an unknown parent in child abuse cases, and allow criminal records for juvenile offenders to be shared electronically.
Prisons in Montana are significantly overcrowded due to high recidivism rates and the growing impact of substance abuse. Without new legislation, the prison population is projected to increase 13 percent by FY2023, requiring at least $51 million in new spending.
To address these concerns, the state Legislature created the Commission on Sentencing. After nearly two years of study, The Council of State Governments Justice Center announced their findings and brought 12 proposed bills to this legislative session.
“We want to think about how we can spend taxpayer money wisely to address these issues and have better outcomes for everybody,” State Sen. Cynthia Wolken said. “Not do what we’re doing now, which is address them in prison, where it’s the most expensive way to treat them.”
The commission’s proposals also include Senate Bills 63, and 64, which aim to change the rules of probation and parole in an effort to keep fewer people from being sent back to prison for minor infractions. According to the Justice Center report, key findings show that revocations account for a majority of prison admissions in Montana and that people are on probation for unusually lengthy periods of time. Reducing revocations for mere technical violations of probation and parole can help reduce the 74% of people in Montana’s correctional system due to revocation of their probation or parole.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to change our thought process,” said state Rep. Jimmy Patelis, a Republican from Billings who previously worked as Montana’s chief U.S. probation officer. “We cannot think that way anymore. We don’t have room, we don’t have the money, and really we need to become updated and innovative.”
There are additional bills designed to further increase public safety through more effective supervised parole and reentry. The additional bills focus on creating a professional, rather than volunteer, state Parole Board, and expanding the reach and improving the efficacy of programs focused on reducing recidivism.
The effective implementation of these reforms will avert nearly $70 million in costs by 2023.