In one of my earlier articles I discussed the unsatisfactory state of affairs in our criminal justice system, pointing out the incarceration rate in the U.S. is the highest in the world.
Our country has 737 per 100,000 people incarcerated, which is six times more than the worldwide midpoint of 145 per 100,000 people. Our prison population was relatively flat until the 1980s. Due primarily to the war on drugs, our incarceration population had increased by an astonishing 500 percent in the last 30 years. Forty-nine percent of U.S. inmates are serving time on drug-related offenses. Criminals should absolutely be held accountable for their actions, but the fiscal and social cost of our current incarceration rate is unacceptable. Prisons should be reserved for violent and repeat offenders.
My article stated “it is time to hold a national debate on the future of our criminal justice system. The average cost to confine an inmate is $26,163 per year. Yet we spend an average of $6,589 to educate a student. Something is amiss.”
Ideas to address this issue were discussed, including reducing penalties for nonviolent offenders, residential and nonresidential treatment programs, and probation for nonviolent offenders. I am pleased to report the Montana Legislature passed some terrific bills along these lines.
Both sides of the aisle came together in the 2017 Montana Legislature to save taxpayer dollars, reduce jail populations, and treat people with chemical dependency issues and mental health issues. Many of these bills came out of the Sentencing Commission, which brought together various groups to perform a comprehensive study of why more money was being spent with worse outcomes. They did an outstanding job. My hat is off to them.
Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, led the commission, and carried these bills, all of which passed. A too brief summary of each is as follows:
SB 59: Sets up a pre-trial, risk based program to utilize when determining bonds and release conditions;
SB 60: Mandates 30 days for pre-sentence investigations, funds new PSI authors, and streamlines the PSI process;
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SB 62: Allows peer mentors to be licensed and paid to help those struggling with chemical dependency and mental health issues;
SB 63: Addresses swift and certain probation sanctions, including intermediate sanctions, for probation violations, as opposed to prison;
SB 64: Overhauls the Board of Pardons and Parole, instituting professional board members and implementing a grid system for decisions;
SB 65: Provides housing vouchers for those leaving prison to up to three months, recognizing this will not only save taxpayers money but also help those reentering society;
SJ 3: Forms an interim study on Native American incarceration rates and how to address those disproportionate rates.
I don’t like labels, but those who lean right like these bills because they save money. Those who lean left like these bills because they reduce incarceration. Many of these bills go into effect July 1. There are some additional bills I am also very excited about, which I will discuss next month.
Overall, the Montana Legislature deserves a hearty congratulations for addressing the ills in our criminal justice system. These “smart on crime” initiatives, the first comprehensive criminal policy reform in 20 years, will have a lasting, and I believe, positive, impact on our criminal justice system.