The Billings Re-Entry Task Force turned nearly 60 law-abiding residents into felons last week.
Gathering in the downtown DoubleTree Hotel ballroom, representatives from organizations across Billings experienced the felon re-entry simulation put on by Billings Probation and Parole.
Participants got a small envelope explaining what had landed them in the Montana State Prison. The form also detailed what requirements they needed to meet as part of their supervised release from prison.
Passages worker Lacey Stovall's form said she'd been convicted of burglary, “but it isn’t what you think,” she joked.
The participants included people like Stovall, who work with felons on a daily basis at places like Passages Women's program and the Alpha House prerelease center. Some had no direct connections to felon re-entry, including a Montana State University Billings professor and a representative of the Downtown Billings Alliance.
Nancy Niedens, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was a convicted drug user, according to her card. She was told she needed to submit each day to a UA, initials unfamiliar to her. UA stands for urine analysis — the abbreviation is common in the criminal justice system.
The exercise was meant to simulate a felon’s first month out of prison. Multiple tables around the ballroom represented different places an offender may need to go to in their first month. This included the courthouse, the Department of Motor Vehicles, a pawn shop and the probation and parole office.
Most participants spent their first week trying to get a state-issued identification card.
It's the first struggle of many offenders leaving prison, said Probation and Parole officer Katie Weston.
In the simulation, not having an ID prevented offenders from getting anything done, not unlike in the real world, Weston said.
It was the second time Weston has put on the simulation. The first time was in Helena, where Institutional Probation and Parole officers participated. Institutional officers work inside the prisons to prepare offenders before they're released. After completing the simulation, the officers wanted to work harder to make sure exiting felons at least had a state ID before returning to a community, Weston said.
During the simulation, participants called to one another asking where the Alcoholics Anonymous class was and how it was different from Narcotics Anonymous. Multiple times, someone would go to a table to ask where something was, only to learn they were in the right place by accident.
Probation and Parole Eastern Bureau Chief Jennie Hansen said this can be a problem for people who are sent to Billings, because although it has many resources, it can be difficult to navigate.
“They come to Billings and they don’t know where anything is,” Hansen said. “It can end up being more detrimental to them.”
The second week, the line to buy bus tickets stretched on. Whenever a participant went to a new table, they had to present a bus ticket, making transportation a top priority for most.
Billings buses do not run on Sunday and stop running early in the evening, Hansen said, making it difficult to accept anything other than a nine-to-five job.
By the end of the simulation, half the people were back in jail. Many had resorted to stealing. More stood looking overwhelmed as Weston sounded the last two minutes of the fourth simulated week.
“It gets scary when you start missing appointments,” Stovall said. “It makes you not want to go back.”
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Stovall had returned to her thieving ways not long after the simulation began.
MSUB Professor Alan Christensen said by the end he was happy for the three minutes he got to spend in jail. His feet hurt and he just wanted to sit down. Christensen used to employ people from Alpha House, the men's prerelease center, for his landscaping company, he said.
“I guess I was doing a nice thing, but I didn’t really understand what they were up against,” Christensen said.
The criminal justice system was built to keep some people separated from others, Christensen said. He never really thought about what it would be like to return to a society after being ostracized.
About 95 percent of offenders in prison right now will return to the community at some point, Weston said. That number was based on national figures, but with Probation and Parole supervising more than 2,000 felons, the reality that former offenders return to the community cannot be denied.
Of prisoners released in 2012, about 63 percent have not committed another crime since their release. Of those released in 2013, 61 percent have not re-offended. The national average inverts Montana’s statistics, with the majority of offenders returning to prison within three years.
Billings Probation and Parole Division Deputy Chief Chris Evans said the system has undergone a massive change since he began with the agency about 16 years ago. The office no longer follows the idea of “trail and jail,” which encouraged officers to be strict when it came to violations.
The 29 Probation and Parole officers in Billings each supervise about 80 to 90 offenders at any given time, Evans said. The Billings office has the largest case load in the state.
“Billings is more open to giving those extra chances people need,” Weston said. “There is more support built in here.”
Evans said he wants officers who are willing to work with people, and people like Weston who have a passion for helping others find better solutions.
Weston supervises offenders who have spent extensive time in prison before being released to the community. While these offenders have committed crimes that might make the public nervous, like homicides or sex offenses, they are often the most willing to comply with their supervision.
“They don’t want to be involved in the criminal life anymore,” Weston said.
While an offender might come to Probation and Parole on their fifth or sixth chance for re-entry, Weston said officers work to not judge offenders on their past.
Probation and Parole determines an offender's level of supervision on a one-to-five scale. Level one means having contact with a probation and parole officer at least three times a month. About 85 offenders in Billings require this level of supervision.
Weston and her partner, Sarah Reil, prefer to meet with the offenders they supervise in person. Being in a person’s house gives Reil a better idea of how her offenders are doing. She can also meet their families and neighbors and can spot bad situations before they develop, she said.
“We aren’t going to send someone to jail for a positive drug test,” Evans said. “Relapses happen. People just need to be honest with the person supervising them.”
When an offender commits a new offense and causes injury, Evans said officers take it hard. They reach out to family and treatment providers, trying to figure out if they could have prevented it, Evans said.
“What it ultimately comes down to is them deciding, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,’” Weston said. “They have to, and we like them to, come to that decision on their own.”