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Substance abuse treatment in Montana prisons

The WATCh program at Warm Springs treats felony DUI offenders. The Department of Corrections operates or contracts for substance abuse treatment programs statewide.

Last week, the Montana Department of Corrections opened a new addiction treatment program at the prison in Deer Lodge, bringing the department’s total treatment capacity to about 500 inmates. That’s just dedicated addiction treatment beds, not including addiction treatment provided in the main MSP or Montana Women’s Prison buildings.

That sounds like an awful lot of effort devoted to treatment, but considering the volume of substance abusing offenders, the services still fall short of the need.

Possession of dangerous drugs, felony DUI (fourth or subsequent offense) and illegal distribution of dangerous drugs are the top three crimes committed by offenders sentenced to Montana prisons. According to the DOC report to the 2017 Legislature, there were 2,419 drug possession convictions, 1,916 felony DUIs and 1,434 drug trafficking convictions among offenders sent to DOC between 2012 and 2016. Those numbers don’t include offenders convicted of violent or property crimes committed when they under the influence of drugs or while they were attempting to get money for drugs.

Keeping all these addicted offenders locked up is incredibly expensive for Montana taxpayers. The Commission on Sentencing study conducted in 2015-2016 found that the state would need to build more prisons soon — unless it more effectively treated offender addictions. The commission of lawmakers, corrections, court and treatment experts found that drug-related arrests increased 62 percent statewide between 2009 and 2015.

The Montana State Correctional Treatment Center is a step in the right direction. This new treatment program is housed in a building that previously was used for the prison “boot camp,” a program that had no research to support its effectiveness in preventing recidivism but which Montana law required DOC to operate. The 2017 Legislature wisely accepted the recommendation to remove the boot camp mandate. The department has followed through with a plan to convert that space to an evidence-based intensive treatment program.

The DOC treatment programs operate in secure facilities. Inmates can’t just walk away. The test of the program’s success comes when offenders return to their communities. That’s why community corrections — parole officers, pre-release centers and re-entry coordinators — are integral to keeping addicts drug free. Montana probation and parole officers have very large caseloads, especially in Billings, which has more offenders under community supervision than any other city in the state. Billings area lawmakers should pay attention to that fact when they set the next biennial budget.

“The ultimate goal is to give inmates the tools to cope with the stresses of living in society without relapsing into alcohol or drug use,” DOC Director Reginald Michael said in a news release.

DOC reports that its addiction treatment protocols are consistent with standards set by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The state can’t afford to guess at what might work; Montana must use strategies that are proven to yield the best results for getting addicts out of the cycle of drug abuse and criminal activity. None of the solutions are cheap or quick, but the alternative is more taxpayer expense and more crime.

With an austere budget, DOC is moving slowly in the right direction. Keeping offenders off drugs is the only way to keep them out of prison long term.

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