Last year, 1,173 inmates were released from Montana’s prison system into communities across the state.
Following a troubling trend that has held steady for more than a decade, within three years of release 40 percent of those men and 34 percent of women will commit another serious crime or parole violation that lands them back in prison.
It’s a vicious cycle and age-old dilemma, both in Montana and across the U.S.
New research continues to shed light on the vast and complex answers at the heart of the issue; answers that are tied to drug and alcohol abuse, cruel upbringings, poor education and the lack of positive influences among family and friends.
This latest understanding of criminal behavior and the factors that reduce recidivism are informing significant changes within the state’s Department of Corrections, which is tasked with supervising more than 13,200 adult and juvenile offenders with an annual budget of more than $170 million.
Under new director Mike Batista, the third-largest government agency in Montana is overhauling some of its primary operations to improve success rates among men and women offenders. The efforts are centered on another key question: Where do they come from and where do they go?
Batista, a Great Falls native, has a 30-year background in law enforcement and criminal investigating. Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Batista director last year and he immediately began implementing a major shift that was years in the making.
“There’s a lot of money on the front end of our country’s justice system that rightfully goes toward making sure people obey the law and are prosecuted,” Batista said.
“But if you look at how many people are repeat offenders, the numbers are pretty staggering. That really shows there is a need to invest in them. We can’t afford in the long term to keep locking up the same people time after time.”
The DOC is reviewing all of its programs and resources, Batista said, trying to find ways to help probation officers and other correctional staff who are the closest mentors many offenders have.
“There is a certain group of offenders that there’s no place for them to go other than prison because of the way they are and what they’ve done,” he said. “But there is a large percentage that we can help. Our officers are deeply devoted to public safety and the security of our communities. They also realize that they have an opportunity to improve some people’s lives.”
A legislative panel is also currently conducting an extensive review of the state’s parole board, which decides the fate of prison inmates seeking freedom. The yearlong study, spearheaded by the Law and Justice Interim Committee, will examine whether the board is too lenient or strict in its rulings.
The emphasis sweeping the state is how to better utilize finances and services among a growing populace of offenders.
The number of new offenders increased roughly 6 percent a year from 2000 to 2009 before lowering to roughly 1 percent annually from 2010 to 2012, according to the DOC.
There were 3,609 prisoners under jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities in Montana in 2012. Among those were 3,210 men and 399 women.
Under Batista, the DOC is trying to improve its delivery of resources and services, like drug treatment, job services and education. The agency is also overhauling its risk assessment system that prioritizes those who need more supervision. The previous risk assessment system asked a handful of questions that determined their risk level to reoffend.
The new system, which is based on studies by renowned criminal justice researcher Ed LaTessa, features more than 70 questions that probation officers go over with offenders as they re-enter the community. The questions examine a person’s background, family history, employment and housing status, as well as positive and negative relationships among family and friends.
High-risk offenders, those who have committed a long list of crimes, are 70 percent more likely to return to prison, and that is the segment on which DOC officers are focusing more of their efforts.
“The offender has not changed. People are still committing the same crimes,” said David Castro, a supervisor in the DOC’s Flathead County regional office, which oversees roughly 800 offenders. “It’s how we’re dealing with them so they stop, or how we assist them so they don’t have to commit more crimes.”
The agency is also organizing new task forces designed solely to help inmates and other offenders succeed in their communities immediately after leaving prison. The Legislature denied funding for statewide re-entry task forces, but Batista is still spearheading the program as an important tool.
The task forces will focus on linking offenders with job and education opportunities, as well as mental health and substance abuse programs. Last year, the Flathead office began contracting with a mental health clinic to ensure that offenders can receive treatment.
The new emphasis turns away from the conventional notion of punishment, like prison time, as the best deterrent to crime. New research is helping correctional administrators better understand the roots of criminal activity and the frequent reasons that offenders fail to stay out of the prison system.
Among the key contributors to perpetual criminal activity are drug and alcohol use; mental health issues; poor education; and a lack of safe and secure housing or positive sources of support like family and friends.
“Maybe they’ve never had a positive influence in their life,” DOC Flathead County Supervisor David Dowell said. “We outline case plans for them to succeed. We’re not trying to punish them. We want them to go to treatment and improve their lives.”
It’s estimated that 93 percent of offenders in Montana have severe drug or alcohol problems, according to the DOC. A majority of female offenders report battery and abuse as adults or children, and a majority are also diagnosed with mental health illnesses.
“Many come back (to prison) because it’s the safest place they have been,” Joan Daly, the new warden at the state’s women prison in Billings, told the Billings Gazette recently. “Almost all are in therapy groups. They have complex issues.”
Four of the top 10 most common felonies among men and women in Montana involve drugs and alcohol, according to the DOC. For the first time in a decade, felony DUI was the most frequent crime among men in Montana in 2012.
The persistence of drug and alcohol abuse in Montana is a central topic at the upcoming Montana Crime Prevention Conference in Bozeman, Oct. 8-10. The keynote speakers are scheduled to address the latest trends in drug abuse.
At the same time, this month is Recovery Month, and the director of Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services is reminding communities across the state that those with substance abuse issues need support and treatment.
“Too many people are still unaware that prevention works, and that mental illness and substance abuse are conditions that can be treated, just like we can treat other health disorders such as diabetes and hypertension,” DPHHS Director Richard Opper said.
“We need to work together to make recovery the expectation, not the exception.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.