Public safety is central to my work in the Legislature since my first term in the House. I have twice co-sponsored bills to allow local governments to pass ordinances defining how peace officers are to handle incapacitated citizens in public places. Both times these bills failed and their absence leaves us with significant public safety issues in Montana’s largest cities. Billings, for example, has seen violent crimes increase from 540 in 2017 to 663 in 2018, a jump of 20%, according to the Billings Police Department’s annual report. Looking at the most recent 2019 data, the reported crimes continue to include many cases related to meth and other drugs.
In the 2017 session, the Legislature addressed these public safety issues with a group of Justice Re-investment Bills. The idea was to avert at least $69 million in spending on incarceration beds and corrections staff and forestall the need to expand or build new correctional facilities. The ultimate goal was to re-invest public dollars in addiction treatment, affordable housing and employment opportunities for those who had been in the correction system.
But so far the cost savings has not developed as robustly as the Legislature hoped. Montana missed a step in the re-investment process. Montana invested only $2.97 million for up-front reinvestment. This was a start, but not nearly enough to provide the community-based services required to assist low-risk offenders who have been released by the Department of Corrections and become the responsibility of local government. Improving our justice system requires targeted investments in alternatives to incarceration like diversion, pre-release, addiction treatment, drug courts and more.
Oklahoma is a recent example of a state that was willing and able to invest up front. In November, Oklahoma, known as the state with the highest incarceration level in the nation, commuted the sentences of 462 low-level offenders, released them from prison and reduced the state’s prison population by 1.7 per cent, saving an estimated $119,000. Leading up to release day, nonprofits and philanthropic foundations collaborated with the Department of Corrections to hold “transition fairs” inside the prisons, where soon-to-be released inmates could meet with staff from organizations that provide housing, employment, case management, and other reentry services, and to provide individuals with reinstated driver’s licenses or state-issued IDs before their discharge. Having the services ready and immediately available for the former prisoners made all the difference.
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Billings has many nonprofits, agencies and organizations that provide excellent services to people in need. That’s why many returning offenders come in large numbers to Billings seeking help. But to co-ordinate and provide reentry services at the level they are needed is currently beyond the resources of Billings’ safety net. Our local agencies need more resources to meet the growing needs.
When we consider a public safety levy and other community supports, we will have to make important decisions about how dollars are spent—on people’s lives or more jail cells.
Daytime drug deal
One Saturday afternoon when I was going door-to door in House District 47, I had an up-close encounter with a drug deal in an apartment building located within a few blocks of the Yellowstone County Courthouse. Not more than 10 feet away from where I was standing, a drug dealer collected money from two customers and provided the drugs in small plastic bags. The dealer saw me, but didn’t seem concerned.
Our peace officers need more staff to deal with these public safety problems, but we also need the resources to reduce caseloads for parole officers and increase re-entry services for those who can live productive lives in our communities. In the long run, rehabilitation is cheaper than recidivism.