HELENA — Montana’s parole board, which decides the fate of hundreds of state prison inmates each year, will be getting a hard look from the Legislature on its possible role in overcrowding Montana’s prison cells.
Beginning next month, a legislative panel kicks off a yearlong study of the board, examining whether the board may be too stringent on granting or revoking parole for felons within the Montana correctional system.
“We’re keeping so many people in prison for so long, nonviolent offenders, at tremendous cost to the taxpayer,” said Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Caldwell, the author of the bill leading to the study. “It just came to some of us that we really need to find out why that is.”
The study will be conducted by the Law and Justice Interim Committee, which has heard hours of testimony from families criticizing the board, accusing it of denying parole for their loved ones for no good reason.
Mike McKee, a retired financial adviser from Hamilton and chairman of the parole board since 2009, said last week that much of that testimony was “misinformation and half-truths being presented as facts.”
Nonetheless, McKee said he welcomes the study as a chance for the board to explain to lawmakers the complexity of its job and how the board and its staff evaluate inmates for possible parole, or revocation of parole.
“We’re hoping that through this process, we can turn the light on and show the world that our operations are in fact above-board, and that we’re doing a heck of a job for the state of Montana,” he said.
The board, known formally as the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, has seven members appointed by the governor and a 10-person staff, and is independent from any other state agency.
Each month, two- or three-member panels of the board hold hearings at prisons around the state, interviewing and reviewing scores of inmates for possible parole or revocation of their parole.
In the fiscal year ending June 30, nearly 1,400 inmates were before the board for possible parole. Of those, about 830 were granted parole.
That same year, the board also revoked parole for nearly 140 inmates after they’d committed new crimes or state probation officers had written them up for violation of parole conditions.
McKee said board staff meets with, and reviews, each inmate before he or she shows up before the board, and recommends whether that inmate should be paroled and what conditions should be placed on the parolee.
Murphy, who’s also vice-chair of the Law and Justice Interim Committee, said he doesn’t think the Parole Board has “bad intentions,” but that testimony before the legislative panel has indicated the board may impose conditions that are difficult if not impossible for some inmates to meet. Or, it creates additional conditions that an inmate must meet before being paroled, beyond what was required by the sentencing judge.
Murphy said he hopes the committee also examines the Department of Corrections’ probation supervision, because DOC probation officers are the ones writing up parolees or felons on probation for violations — which can lead to parolees and probationers being sent to prison.
Pam Bunke, head of the Corrections Department’s Adult Community Corrections Division, said last week that probation officers’ first job is to protect public safety.
If they feel a parolee or probationer is a safety threat, the offender likely will be written up and taken into custody — but not necessarily to prison, she said.
They could be sent to secure treatment programs, stricter supervision or pre-release centers, instead of prison. “We try to divert (away) from prison whenever possible,” Bunke said.
The study of the parole board is part of a larger effort by some in the Legislature to ensure Montana’s correctional system is doing enough to help those released from prison stay out of prison.
Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, who chairs the Law and Justice Interim Committee, sponsored a law this year that creates a new task force to advise and help develop “re-entry” programs for offenders leaving prison.
The Bullock administration also asked the Legislature for $1 million to fund new re-entry programs, but the 2013 Legislature denied all but $60,000 of the money.
Re-entry programs can help save the state money by leading to less frequent incarceration, and help increase public safety, MacDonald said.
“If there are people in (prison) who don’t belong there, we’re really not helping our communities at all,” she said. “They could be out holding down jobs, parenting their children, contributing to our tax base.”
Overall, about 40 percent of the men released from Montana’s prison system end up back behind bars within three years.
Corrections Director Mike Batista said last week that’s a “pretty good number,” since 60 percent of those released aren’t re-offending or violating terms of their parole. Yet he also said the agency would like to reduce the recidivism rate, and that re-entry programs can be a key factor in doing so.