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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Jail, Prison Reforms On Budget Chopping Block

Montana Department of Corrections

Tough decisions about state budget cuts are on the table before lawmakers in Helena Wednesday and Thursday. They’re facing a $282 million revenue shortfall.

A state agency facing some of the steepest budget cuts is Corrections, which stands to lose about $40 million.

Corrections was already facing some tough challenges before this year’s budget crunch. As of October 3, the state prison in Deer Lodge was nearly 30 inmates over capacity. That means more inmates are being housed in county jails, which statewide saw their population grow nearly 70 percent in the most recent census. A legislative report says that could end up costing the state more than $50 million.

The consequences of prison overcrowding hit home at the Lewis and Clark County jail, where inmates are regularly stored among the abundance of Bibles and state code books in the jail’s library. They also sleep in a locked hallway between the cell blocks when the jail runs out of bed space.

Alan Hughes, the detention center captain, says all this happens more often than not.

“The library was never supposed to be a housing unit," Hughes said, "but we’ve had to house people there. We simply give them a mat, put them on the floor and say ‘that’s all you get.’ Maybe we’ll give them a plastic tote to put their stuff in. And that’s what these guys are living with right here.” 

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton says the clog in the state’s criminal justice system could get worse if proposed budget cuts are put in place.

“We have no room, and that’s what people need to understand," Dutton says. "We have no room. And this is going to compound those things. ”

Sheriff Dutton says if state funding for public safety goes away, the need for that service doesn’t, and the cost of that could be shifted to local taxpayers.

“That’s what happens. The state shifts the costs to the locals and then they go out of town with the good feeling that they maybe balanced the budget, but they balanced it on the backs of local citizens, or shifted the cost to counties or cities or municipalities that are left holding the bag," Dutton says. "So it’s not that the services aren’t needed - and I’m not talking about public safety services, not mental health or anything, which are critical to us, but these are basic public safety services.”

The budget lawmakers passed, and that Governor Bullock signed this spring, included funding for several new programs that aimed to reduce overcrowding by keeping people from going to jail in the first place, or from returning after they get out.

One, from the state’s sentencing commission, would have hired six new positions to help judges more efficiently process convicted criminals, which could lead to them needing to spend less time in jail.

Another authorized $200,000 to help parolees get back on their feet and find housing after being released. Lawmakers voted to fund stable housing so that parolees would be less likely to return to jails and prisons. That’s also on the chopping block.

"You can’t understate it, these cuts will be devastating," says Democratic Senator Cynthia Wolken from Missoula. Wolken worked for years with other lawmakers and people familiar with jail and prison issues looking for smarter investments in the state’s criminal justice system.

Their work influenced the bi-partisan package of bills aiming to save money in corrections long-term by starting the new programs.

But now, budget cuts proposed by Governor Bullock mean those probably won’t get funded.

“Unfortunately they include almost all of the work at the sentencing commission and I think if he is forced to make them, it would take the state back in this arena," Wolken says. 

Although one key bill from the Sentencing Commission is largely protected because it’s run through the Department of Justice, Billings Republican Representative Jim Patelis says the cuts lawmakers are considering this week would end up costing the state more in the long term.

“That all has a domino effect,” he says.

Patelis is a retired federal chief probation officer and currently sits as the vice chair on the legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee.

He says the new laws designed to ease jail and prison crowding would be smart investments in making it a more efficient system.

“It all starts with a couple of these bills," Patelis says. "Those two bills that are proposed being cut, and I understand why, but those two bills are critical to getting this whole reinvestment act moving.”

Patelis says somehow the state needs to come up with a way to pay for these programs because it’s going to help defendants and offenders get out of prison and back to being productive members of their community.

“About $3 million was passed for all these bills to help save millions of dollars by helping inmates get out of the prison, either early, it would also be to assist them, but also, the money that is going to be saved by paying a little bit up front is going to be astronomical," he says. 

But Representative Patelis, like most of his Republican colleagues, doesn’t think the state should use tax increases to fund worthy government programs.

He says the Department of Corrections instead needs to offer more targeted cuts within the agency that have less impact to crucial programs, although he did not offer suggestions for what those cuts might be.

Democrats are more open to the idea of a special session that could include tax increases.

When Department of Corrections Director Reginald Michael testified before the Law and Justice Interim Committee in late September, he told lawmakers that he hoped the cuts could be avoided.

“Our hope is that the governor can work with you all, on the sides of the aisle, to come up with some solutions that allow us to minimize some of these proposed cuts," Michael said. 

But cutting new proposals won’t be enough to meet the 10 percent budget cut Governor Bullock is asking Corrections to make. That would require shutting down some existing services, too.

The Lewistown Infirmary could close its doors on the nearly two dozen inmates getting nursing home care there, sending them elsewhere in the state prison system.

And the Youth Transition Center in Great Falls, which mainly houses young sex offenders when they cannot return home, would also close.

Ten workers at the Pine Hills Correctional Facility in Miles City could also lose their jobs.

All in all, funding for 45 staff positions could be cut across the DOC, says corrections chief Michael.

“But these are a real life best attempt to find some solutions to the budget cut," he said, "and they will affect a lot of different aspects of what we do. Those choices will affect the people who work with us. Those choices will affect our partners in the community. And some of them are choices we are really going to struggle with.”

The Governor’s budget director will explain the executive's budget-cutting choices to the Legislative Finance Committee starting Wednesday morning.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Division reports that millions of dollars of those cuts could leave agencies vulnerable to lawsuits for failing to comply with service contracts and violating state law.

Lawmakers will make their recommendations to the governor for how to handle the cuts in the coming days, after hearing from the governor’s office and what is expected to be hours of testimony from the public, protesting the state cuts.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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