Prison reform bills introduced by Missoula legislator signed into law

Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula

A suite of bills introduced by a Missoula legislator earned the governor’s signature this week in a step to reform Montana’s criminal justice system.

Among other things, the justice reinvestment bills will implement new evidenced-based practices and ensure that decisions are driven by data throughout the criminal justice system.

“These smart pieces of legislation give us the opportunity to use resources more effectively and ensure the successful reentry of offenders into society and the workforce,” said Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, who sponsored eight of the 10 measures.

In November 2015, the Montana Commission on Sentencing began working with the Council of State Government’s Justice Center to address prison overcrowding and high recidivism using data-driven information.

An analysis of Montana’s system revealed that without action, the state’s prison population was set to increase 14 percent by 2023, requiring the state to spend tens of millions of dollars to cover the cost in contracting beds and hundreds of millions of dollars to construct and operate new prison facilities.

Total spending on corrections has already increased by 16 percent since 2008 and now tops $180 million annually, Gov. Steve Bullock said.

“Through innovative and sensible solutions, we will save taxpayers money, improve outcomes for offenders, keep Montana communities safe, and provide more treatment options to address underlying mental health and substance abuse disorders,” Bullock said.

Under the new policies, Montana will avoid spending an additional $69 million over the next six years to increase prison capacity.

“After 30 years working in the federal probation system, I’m convinced that focusing our actions on evidence-based practices and on outcomes is the right direction to take to improve public safety,” Montana Department of Corrections Director Reg Michael said.

Twenty-six other states have successfully used the justice reinvestment approach to address overcrowding and recidivism, including Idaho, Texas and West Virginia.