Just five years ago, the Montana Department of Corrections had an average daily population of 8,375 offenders on probation or parole. That average started climbing in 2014, hit 10,209 in fiscal 2018, which ended in June and has been running around 10,500 for the past several months.

That large number of felony offenders is supervised in communities across our state by probation and parole officers who are substantially overloaded. In DOC Region 4, which includes Billings, Hardin and Miles City, regular probation/parole officers carry caseloads averaging 80 to 105 people that they are supposed to meet with, check on and write reports on multiple times a month. None of the six regions has caseloads lower than 60-90, according to information provided by DOC.

“That’s too many to have under supervision to effectively manage cases,” DOC Director Reginald Michael told The Gazette in a phone interview last week. “We’re trying to decrease caseloads to focus on those who pose the greatest risk and have the greatest need.”

Set Up to Fail: Montana’s Probation and Parole System,” a 72-page report released Sept. 10 by ACLU of Montana, details the problems that have contributed to full prisons and overloaded community corrections officers.

“In Montana, hundreds of people – 462 people in 2017 – are incarcerated each year for technical or compliance violations of probation or parole,” the ACLU reported. “State research demonstrates that most of these individuals are returning to custody as a result of a violation of their supervision rules as opposed to the commission of a new crime.”

“This is why we passed a lot of the sentencing reforms,” said Rep. Jimmy Patelis, R-Billings. “Corrections is completely aware of this. They are working on changes.”

Risk assessment

Patelis, who retired as chief of federal probation and parole in Billings, agreed that the state needs more officers. But he said policies and procedures have to change, too. For example, Montana has just started to use a risk assessment tool to determine which people officers need to concentrate on and which need less supervision.

Typically, there are 27 conditions that Montana probationers and parolees must follow. Some aren’t appropriate to every case. The length of probation in Montana can stretch for decades, Patelis said. That’s a cause of high caseloads, he said. “Unless it’s a sex or violent offender, anything over six years is ridiculous,” Patelis said.

The ACLU report, drawn from interviews with people on probation and parole as well as DOC officers and others with firsthand knowledge of the system, recommends changes:

  • Develop a holistic defender system that helps people find housing, treatment, transportation, jobs and other programs required for them to stay out of prison. The ACLU offers the Confederated and Salish Kootenai Tribes defender program as a successful model for the state.
  • Recruit more DOC staff members who are Native American, and more Native American mental health and addiction treatment professionals to provide culturally appropriate services.
  • Allow and encourage officers to reduce probation terms and check-ins where appropriate.
  • Recognize the reality of poverty and other circumstance the probationer/parolee has to confront when setting conditions for an individual’s release.
  • Provide community mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The report acknowledges “important legislative changes” made in 2017, but warns that the cycle of failing at parole and going back to prison is likely to continue absent “meaningful re-entry and community rehabilitative services.”

Health care needs

Mental health care and addiction treatment are vital community services for the great majority of Montanans on probation (conditional release to avoid prison) and parole (conditional release from prison). Medicaid expansion created a payment source for treatment of low-income Montanans, including most individuals on probation and parole. Then state budget cuts last year disrupted mental health and addiction services statewide and forced numerous providers to downsize or even discontinue some health care. Continuation of Medicaid expansion is essential for Montana to reduce the number of offenders whose trouble with the law stems from untreated mental illness or substance abuse.

At the same time, the Medicaid program, which is administered by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, must adequately reimburse health care providers so they can keep serving Montanans who need care they cannot afford on their own.

Many of the evidence-based practices Montana is moving toward were adopted in the federal system 15 years ago, Patelis said, adding that DOC is doing a great job of making changes. Michael, the DOC director, also is a veteran federal probation supervisor.

The Board of Pardons and Parole is releasing more inmates since the Legislature revamped it to have full-time members with specific skills and backgrounds. The aim is to have the board consistently applying standards to determine when and whether an offender should be paroled.

“I agree that this disproportionate number of Native Americans in our DOC is something we need to work on,” Michael said. DOC has a Native American liaison who works with a counterpart in the governor’s office. DOC recruits staff at tribal job fairs. Michael has visited tribal councils on the Blackfeet, Fort Belknap and Flathead reservations and plans to visit all Montana reservations. Because the federal government is involved in reservation law enforcement, Michael wants to work with U.S. authorities.

The ACLU of Montana has produced a valuable report for the 2019 Legislature, which every lawmaker should read. The reforms will take a few years to produce the intended results: allowing Montana to keep the public safe while locking up only those offenders who are dangerous.

The 2017 Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock made a start on justice reform, but there is much more to do. The 2019 session must keep reform on track with smart and sufficient investment in community corrections. That’s the way to avoid a burgeoning prison population and the huge expense of incarcerating people who could be working — if they stayed clean, sober and healthy.

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