Montana Women's Prison

Montana Women's Prison in Billings. The Department of Corrections will cut $3 million over the current two-year budget cycle after state revenues came in lower than expected. 

Gazette Staff

Amid overcrowding at jails and prisons statewide, Montana will leave corrections jobs unfilled, trim contracts with prerelease and treatment centers and try to save money on medical care for inmates.

That’s in order to absorb budget cuts triggered when revenue came in $75 million below projections in July.

The Department of Corrections will cut $3 million from its budget of $404 million for the current biennium. The cut will put additional strain on DOC employees, some with already heavy caseloads, and could hamper the state’s efforts to ease overcrowding at county jails.

Most of those cuts, 60 percent, will be made to state facility operations. That includes $610,000 in added position savings and $655,000 in cuts to outside medical funding, which pays for any medical appointments for which an inmate must leave prison.

DOC Communications Director Judy Beck said it’s too early to tell how many jobs will go unfilled or for how long, but that they could be in any DOC division, including Probation and Parole, which has notoriously high caseloads. Officers there manage an average of 75 offenders.

Beck stressed that the cuts in medical funds don’t mean inmates will stop receiving the care they need. But if the department is unable to save as much money as it hopes to on outside medical care, it will need to make cuts elsewhere. She said it’s too soon to know where that might be.

“As you might imagine, if you’ve ever tried to guess what your medical expenses will be in the next year, it’s a guess,” Beck said. “It’s an estimate.”

The remaining $1.2 million will be cut from private contracts with treatment centers, prerelease facilities and the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby — the state’s only private prison. It will be up to those companies to implement the cuts in their services.

When asked, Beck said it’s possible the state could opt not to renew the private prison’s contract in 2019 when it expires.

“All contract partners are important in the criminal justice system,” she said. “Given the state’s current financial situation, all options are on the table.”

David Armstrong, CEO at Alternatives Inc., said the 0.5 percent cut the Billings prerelease center will see in its contract with the state is manageable. What’s concerning, he said, is that their current contract includes no provision for inflation, which he said was provided at 2 percent last biennium.

“Initially it’s very sustainable, but long term, something would have to come our way,” Armstrong said.

The state will also have to scale back its plan to ease overcrowding at county jails. State offenders are held in county jails while awaiting placement in a prison, treatment or prerelease facility, or while waiting for evaluations, like chemical dependency or sexual offender evaluations. County jails also hold state offenders who have violated parole and are awaiting a court hearing.

These jail holds, combined with an increase in criminal cases, mean most county jails are housing more people than they were designed for.

The DOC’s budget covers 250 offender spots in county jails each day, but 410 offenders are actually using those jail beds daily, according to DOC data from May. The state still has to pay the bill, at a rate of $69 per day, per offender.

The Legislature directed state officials to reduce that number to 250 by Jan. 1, 2018, and appropriated $6 million for the current biennium to accomplish that — but the July cuts reduced that dollar amount by 10 percent to $5.4.

The DOC plans to pay for more beds at prerelease and treatment centers to help house these state offenders, estimating beds there will be cheaper than the $69-per-day rate in county jails.

The department also expects to see a reduced need for jail holds in general after various criminal justice reform efforts passed this spring take effect. Those are aimed, in part, at reducing long prison stays and ending probation and parole early when the state decides it’s appropriate. They include measures like Senate Bill 60, which requires the DOC to use risk and needs assessments and is expected to lead to reduced sentences for low-risk offenders.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.