HELENA — Montana is seeking aid from a national research organization to conduct a comprehensive study of the state’s correctional system for the first time in 18 years.
Top government officials asked the Council of State Governments last week to help carry out a new mandated-but-unfunded state review of the penal process, policy and finances in Montana.
The eight state officials said in a letter dated June 30 that a broad analysis is needed to address a prison population that could exceed capacity by November.
“We’re seeing large increases in expenses for agencies that don’t really control their input — they don’t really control who gets sent to detention, who gets sent to prison,” said Sen. Cynthia Wolken, a Missoula Democrat who sponsored the study proposal this year. “Instead of addressing this one session at a time, we need to come up with a strategic plan.”
The letter said Montana will target state policy to combat its “corrections challenges.” Increasing prison populations have been a national trend since the 1980s and one that Montana owes not to a corresponding increase in crime, but to more and longer jail sentences.
Montana’s prison population has grown at least 32 percent since 1998, according to a 2013 study by the National Governors Association and Pew Charitable Trusts. In the same period, the population of state correctional institutions nationwide increased 14.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Federal prisons reached capacity years ago.
The state asked the council to provide staff to fine-tune data and identify ways to save money and reduce recidivism. Gov. Steve Bullock, Montana Chief Justice Mike McGrath, Attorney General Tim Fox, Department of Corrections Director Mike Batista and four legislative leaders signed the letter.
If granted, the Justice Reinvestment program would be funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and Pew Charitable Trusts.
“We just don’t have the staff to go out to the prison and quantify the data,” said Susan Fox, director of Legislative Services. “They can bring a lot more resources to bear.”
Fox and Wolken said outside assistance is crucial since Montana’s Democratic governor signed the bill requiring the study but vetoed the $28,000 to fund it.
Senate Bill 224, establishing a 15-person Commission on Sentencing, was one of three study bills that Bullock line-item vetoed this session. The other two require existing committees to study licensing boards and youth mental health services.
Bullock explained his reasoning for each in letters to legislative leadership. All three letters said “the Legislature has the resources needed to support the interim study without increased funding.”
The move left Fox in a quandary.
“This is a new level of abstraction,” said Fox, a member of the legislative staff for 23 years. “I do not recall this happening in the past.”
She is now tasked with finding money in the existing interim budget to fund the new committee. With or without reimbursement, the team is slated to begin meeting in the fall.
“That will help lay the groundwork and kind of give direction to the grant, and then those people will come in and help that study go a lot further than we could otherwise,” Fox said.
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