HELENA — The Montana Senate has unanimously approved the nomination of a Miami probation officer to lead Montana’s Department of Corrections, as the state tackles prison overcrowding, reducing the number of repeat offenders and exploring how to deal with the myriad challenges faced by Montana’s criminal justice system.
Gov. Steve Bullock said he was impressed with the career and qualifications of his appointee, Reginald Michael, who most recently oversaw the country’s fourth largest U.S. probation agency.
About an hour before the Senate confirmed him Wednesday, Michael appeared before a mostly friendly Senate Judiciary Committee, which advanced his nomination.
He told lawmakers he would be interested in exploring partnerships with businesses but said he would “have concerns about privatizing the entire criminal justice system.”
When asked by one lawmaker to recount what led him to a career in criminal justice, Michael, who is black and grew up in Louisiana and near New York City, described a childhood that reflected some of the racial tensions that still exist between people of color and authorities.
He said he never ran afoul of the law, but was sometimes targeted by law enforcement, he said, possibly because of his race. Because of those experiences, he said, he was motivated to enter law enforcement “to stop that from happening.”
“My experience as a young man with racism was not comfortable,” he said after the hearing. “It’s not something I appreciated, but it occurred,” Michael said.
Michael, 53, will oversee the state’s prisons, youth correctional facilities and probation services. He will supervise about 1,300 employees and a correctional system that engages with 16,000 people each year and has an annual budget of about $200 million.
He fills the vacancy created by the retirement of Mike Batista at the end of last year.
Bullock picked Michael from among three finalists winnowed from a pool of applicants from across the country.
“The Governor’s Office sought qualified applicants from across the nation to fill this position with a goal of leading and improving services and support of Montana’s corrections system,” said Ronja Abel, Bullock’s spokeswoman.
Michael, who has spent 30 years working in criminal justice, said he was no stranger to Montana. He’s made frequent trips to the state, both in his role as a probation administrator and to visit with friends, some of whom vouched for him during his confirmation hearings with the Senate committee.
“One of the draws for me has been an appreciation for the people of this state,” Michael said.