Improving Montana’s criminal justice system must be high on the priority list for the 2017 Legislature and governor. Whoever is elected must confront these challenges:
- The state prison system continues to be at or above its capacity of 2,580 inmates month after month, year after year.
- Overflow state prisoners are housed at county jails, adding to overcrowding in those facilities, including the Yellowstone County jail.
- General fund spending on corrections increased from $131 million in fiscal 2006 to $182 million in fiscal 2014.
- Montana’s prison population has grown faster than the national average.
- Most of the people getting locked up have failed at probation or parole.
Growth in the corrections population – in prison and the much larger number in community supervision — coincides with an increase in District Court felony cases. Nowhere has the increase been bigger than in Yellowstone County. Last year, 2,291 felony cases were filed in Yellowstone County District Court.
The surge in criminal cases is driven largely by drug offenses. More than 500 people were arrested last year in Yellowstone County on methamphetamine charges alone.
Montana incarcerates offenders at a higher rate than any of its neighboring states. Between 2004 and 2013, Montana’s property crime rate dropped substantially, while its violent crime rate increased – even though more people were locked up. Montana crime rates remain below national averages.
The justice system is overloaded and understaffed at almost every level. Billings has struggled to recruit and pay for adequate police protection. The county attorney’s office has seen its workload double without a commensurate increase in staff. The Montana Public Defender Office doesn’t have enough money in its budget to last this fiscal year. Yellowstone County District Court judges each handle double the caseload that is considered full time by national standards. The Department of Corrections has struggled with staffing shortages and its probation-parole officers have too many people to supervise adequately.
Many of those offenders on probation and parole are parents involved with the child protection system, which is overwhelmed with huge increases in reports of child abuse and neglect. Drug addiction is a major factor in the child welfare crisis.
In fact, methamphetamine, opioids or alcohol figure prominently in most criminal cases in Montana. The vast majority of people in our prisons, jails and on probation or parole have substance abuse issues that are the root of their recidivism.
Created by the 2015 Legislature, the Commission on Sentencing has been developing solutions to Montana’s justice problems. The commission received research assistance from the Council of State Govermments Justice Center, which has helped 20 other states with comprehensive policy reviews. Montana must look to other states that have successfully reduced recidivism.
Yellowstone County was well represented on the 15-member commission by District Judge Ingrid Gustafson, Billings attorney Majel Russell, probation officer Jennie Hansen and Rep. Margie MacDonald.
Last month, the commission agreed to support a dozen bills in the 2017 Legislature, so the next steps will depend on lawmakers. Republicans, Democrats and many people outside of the Capitol will need to come together to stop the revolving door of prison, release, prison.
Otherwise, Montana’s justice system will continue to cost taxpayers more each year – without reducing crime, drug abuse or recidivism. The system needs adequate staffing at every level so cases move expeditiously, rendering swift justice for victims and communities. Offenders who are addicted to alcohol and other drugs must be compelled to enter effective treatment with aftercare. Montana needs more probation officers to closely supervise offenders in the community.
Montana can’t keep locking up so many drug addicts. We must move toward a system in which offenders who are a danger to the community are incarcerated and nonviolent offenders have speedier opportunities for drug treatment and rehabilitation. Let’s put more offenders to work and fewer in prison.