Department of Corrections Cuts Would Have Ripple Effects

Sheriff says cuts to state programs would exacerbate local jail crowding issue

By Justin Franz
Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Any cuts to the Montana Department of Corrections could have a ripple effect through the local justice system, according to officials in Flathead County.

The DOC, which oversees the Montana State Prison and more than two dozens corrections programs and facilities across the state, is one of the many state agencies looking to make deep cuts in order to address Montana’s budget shortfall.

Early estimates suggest the agency would have to trim spending by $40 million over two years, resulting in the elimination of at least 45 employees and the scaling back of a number of programs. According to the DOC and news reports, a number of facilities could be in the crosshairs. A youth transition center in Great Falls would close under proposed cuts, as would a Lewistown facility that cares for elderly inmates, and a plan to create a chemical dependency treatment facility at the state prison in Deer Lodge would be shelved.

State officials have said it’s too early to know what exactly will happen. Gov. Steve Bullock could call a special session to try to resolve the issue.

“Unfortunately, there are no good options for such significant cuts,” said Corrections Director Reginald D. Michael. “We hope that throughout this process we can identify more responsible solutions to this situation, but for now we’ll keep making public safety decisions in the best interest of Montanans.”

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said any cuts at the state level would impact the local justice system. He also said any cuts to drug treatment programs could exacerbate Flathead County’s jail crowding problem. Curry notes that more than 400 state inmates who have been convicted and sentenced to prison are waiting for space to open up in Deer Lodge.

“We’re really concerned about it,” Curry said. “It’s not like the inmates are just going to go away (because of budget cuts).”

Curry said it’s already a significant problem for taxpayers to have local jails holding that many state inmates. Currently, the state only pays $69 per day for a county to hold a state inmate, even though the true cost is closer to $90, Curry said. Curry said those costs are passed on to local taxpayers. During recent legislative sessions, the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association has tried to no avail to get the state to lift the current $69 reimbursement cap.

Curry also worries that state budget cuts would impact drug treatment programs, a service he said Montana desperately needs to expand to deal with a growing methamphetamine and opioid addiction crisis.

Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison agrees with Curry and said that almost any cuts to the corrections system would give the justice system fewer sentencing options.

“It would be a step in the wrong direction, and I think it would come back to bite us in the long term,” he said.

Allison said he would love to see drug treatment services expanded and for a local drug court to be established. He said the vast majority of the cases that come before his court are drug-related.

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