Governor Signs Bills Addressing Criminal Justice Costs

Laws aim to reduce costs for the state public defender's office and help reduce recidivism

By Molly Priddy

HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock has signed a package of bills that seek to reduce costs for the state public defender’s office and help reduce recidivism.

One bill calls for the Office of Public Defender to establish a pilot project in up to four regions that would put clients in touch with social workers and other services that might help address the reasons they got in trouble with the law.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are already trying the “holistic defense” pilot project and say it has cut recidivism in half among chronic offenders who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. Social workers help offenders obtain driver’s licenses, jobs, housing and medical care.

Reducing recidivism would reduce caseloads for the public defender’s office, which has seen a 30 percent increase in caseloads since 2012. Public defenders have said they didn’t always feel like they are providing adequate representation to their clients.

Bullock held a ceremonial signing for the pilot project bill on Wednesday while also signing a bill that would allow jail inmates free phone calls to their attorneys. The law is expected to save the public defender’s office about $35,000 a year in collect calls as well as time public defenders spend visiting clients in jail.

Rep. Ellie Hill-Smith, D-Missoula, who sponsored the phone call bill, said it protects a person’s 6th amendment right to counsel in jails that contract with a phone service in which the average call costs $18 to $24 while also allowing counties to set policies for the number and length of calls.

Another bill signed Wednesday eliminates the requirement to appoint a public defender for an unknown parent in child abuse and neglect cases, which could save the state about $100,000 annually, said sponsor Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula.

The law will help streamline the process in child abuse and neglect cases, “so you won’t have attorneys showing up for people who really aren’t part of the child’s life,” Dudik said.

A fourth bill, requested by the Department of Corrections, allows criminal records for juvenile offenders to be shared electronically, rather than on paper, and calls for sealing most formal and informal youth court records when the youth involved turns 18. That bill takes effect immediately.