Montana State Prison Deer Lodge

The Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.

File photo

Proposed budget cuts to the Montana Department of Corrections would close a care facility for frail inmates, leave youth sex offenders without a primary housing program and end plans to create a new drug addiction treatment center that observers say was sorely needed.

The cuts would require the state to lay off dozens of workers, adding to the workload of existing staff. More responsibilities would fall to local law enforcement. And routine overcrowding at county jails would almost certainly get worse.

State officials must cut $40.2 million over the current biennium from the DOC — one of the hardest-hit departments under the proposed cuts — or find another way to balance the budget.

Gov. Steve Bullock will have the final say on budget cuts and has urged lawmakers to raise taxes to lessen the blow. A legislative committee meets Monday and Tuesday to make recommendations.

The cuts come amid efforts to reform Montana’s criminal justice system and save the state money in the long run by reducing crowding at jails and prisons, shifting more responsibilities onto probation and parole services and improving treatment opportunities statewide. Now budget cuts could jeopardize those cost-saving reforms.

Closing the infirmary

The cuts call for closing the Lewistown Infirmary. The infirmary has been open to male prison inmates since December 2012. State officials had stressed the need for the facility for more than a decade.

The infirmary houses 25 low-security inmates with chronic health conditions. Many are confined to a bed, use walkers or wheelchairs, or require monitoring to prevent falls. Others have poor eyesight or hearing and issues such as dementia, heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

Housing them in the state prison would strain the prisons’ resources, exacerbate crowding and could pose a threat to inmates’ health, putting the department at risk of being sued, it warned. The state prison already operates at or over capacity on most days.

The department is currently looking for facilities outside of the state prison that could care for and house the inmates if the infirmary closes.

Youth services

Proposed cuts to youth services would force the department to close the seven-bed Youth Transitions Center in Great Falls, eliminating the center’s 11 jobs. The center is the primary home for youth sex offenders leaving juvenile prison who aren’t yet ready for parole.

The youth currently living at the center would be moved back to Pine Hills, the juvenile prison in Miles City, where 10 jobs would be eliminated. 

Money for youth offenders’ mental health, chemical dependency and sex offender treatment would also be reduced.

Jail crowding

Jails are consistently at or over capacity, creating concerns statewide about inmate and officer safety and growing costs to counties. The state is taking a multi-pronged approach to ease crowding, but proposed cuts hit most of the efforts.

The cuts would eliminate $5.5 million in new funding to reduce the number of state inmates being held in county jails by paying for added bed space at prerelease and treatment centers.

Cuts would also eliminate money to hire six new positions to write pre-sentence investigation reports. (PSI reports contain mental health and other information judges must consider at sentencing.)

Reform proponents had said it was taking too long to write the reports, slowing down cases and adding to jail crowding. But a new 30-day deadline aimed at speeding up the process would be “impossible” to meet if the six positions were eliminated, the department said.

The cuts call for closing the state “boot camp” and canceling plans to repurpose it as a 60-bed chemical dependency treatment facility. The facility was underutilized, while the state’s treatment facilities have long wait lists.

Proponents had said the plan would help Montana address widespread meth use and reduce jail crowding. (And lawmakers had said the change would not eliminate any state jobs in Deer Lodge, which lost 35 earlier this year when a state agency relocated.)

Other state efforts to ease jail and prison crowding face cuts, including certain chemical dependency treatment centers, county matching grants for mental health and crisis intervention, and new initiatives to expand housing options for offenders.

Cutting contracts

The proposed cuts call for reduced payments to regional prisons in Glendive and Great Falls; the Crossroads Correctional Center, Montana’s only private prison; and the Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center.

Under the best-case scenario, this would reduce or eliminate programming in the facilities, threaten officer and inmate safety, “dramatically slow inmate movement through the correctional system,” compound overcrowding, and put the state at greater risk of being sued, the department wrote in its budget note.

Under the worst-case scenario, the facilities could opt to end their contracts with the state, forcing the department to find new placements for 1,037 inmates.

Tom Green, warden at Dawson County Correctional Facility, said the county is waiting to see if the full cuts are implemented. If they are, county officials would indeed consider ending their contract with the state, which would free up bed space for jail commitments from Dawson County and any other county willing to pay for the bed space.

“We will not ask our taxpayers to subsidize the state of Montana in their shortcomings,” Green said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.