A state’s prison population isn’t exactly a demographic whose growth is met with open arms. So when a federal report recently found that Montana’s prison population had jumped 10.9 percent over the course of 2005—an increase that ranked second nationally—more than a few observers wondered why, and what that meant.
“I think it should give everyone pause,” says Democratic Rep. Gail Gutsche, a Missoula legislator now in the last days of her term-limited service in the state House of Representatives. “We really need to get a grasp on who’s going to prison, why they’re going there and how we can divert offenders.”
Gutsche, as it happens, is one of many in the state who was working to address these questions long before the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report was issued Nov. 30.
A member of the Corrections Advisory Council (CAC), Gut- sche is also chairwoman of a CAC subcommittee appointed more than a year ago to study and recommend solutions for overcrowding in the state’s prisons. On Nov. 30, CAC approved seven recommendations for change, all aiming to improve treatment and support for offenders rather than simply build more traditional prison cells.
Mike Ferriter, director of the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC), says that in coming weeks those recommendations will be taken up by his department, Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the legislators who convene in January 2007.
He says the DOC has spent the last several years developing an increasing variety of community corrections options—prison alternatives that range from probation to prerelease facilities. And because the Bureau of Justice Statistics lumps community corrections under the category of “prison population,” the report’s finding that the state’s prison population has increased nearly 11 percent is a bit misleading, he says.
“It’s confusing for people who don’t understand that some of the alternatives we’ve developed—things like DUI treatments and prerelease centers—are still counted as prison population growth,” Ferriter says. “Certainly, we’re making great strides to provide alternatives to incarceration at the highest level we ever have.”
Other federal numbers also help put the recent prison population statistic in context: Montana ranks 31st nationally in its incarceration rate, which reflects the number of offenders sentenced to prison for more than one year. And the BJS report also includes the fact that Montana ranks fifth nationally for its increase in community corrections.
Still, many argue that despite Montana’s relatively recent trend toward improving incarceration alternatives, much remains to be done. Financial incentives and increased effectiveness both require that Montana take further steps toward crafting a corrections system that has the best chance of protecting the public and rehabilitating offenders, according to experts who advocated at the Nov. 30 CAC meeting for prison alternatives for many of Montana’s drug offenders and sexual offenders.
Already, 77 percent of the more than 12,000 people tangled up in Montana’s corrections system are supervised by the Adult Community Correc- tions Division. The remaining 2,700 or so state offenders are held in the all-male Montana State Prison, Montana Women’s Prison, four regional prisons (including one in Missoula) and county jails. Community corrections come in a number of forms statewide, ranging from boot camps to DUI treatment programs to prerelease centers to supervised probation and parole. In the coming year, two methamphetamine treatment prisons—one each for men and women—will come online, as will a female prerelease center in Billings. This legislative session, Ferriter says, DOC will also propose a joint program with the Department of Public Health and Human Services to serve mentally ill offenders currently held within regular prison populations, as well as an expansion of the prisoners’ work program. The only expansion of traditional hard-cell beds that Ferriter says the DOC has requested is an additional 40 beds at Glendive’s regional prison. Gov. Schweitzer’s budget proposes a substantial increase of nearly $89 million for the DOC over the next biennium, largely to account for past under-funding, new meth treatment facilities, the proposed program for mentally ill inmates and personnel pay raises, budget director David Ewer says.
Ferriter, who was appointed DOC director in July after running the state’s community corrections division, says it makes sense to punish and treat offenders within their own communities whenever possible for a variety of reasons. One of the easiest to pin down is financial: Housing an inmate in the Montana State Prison costs about $76 a day, while parole and probation costs about $4 per diem and prerelease centers run about $50 a day. But there are also less tangible reasons, like the impacts on prisoners’ families as well as the fact that a large percentage of offenders suffer from mental illnesses and treatable substance addictions, for thinking outside the barbed-wire box.
“The goal of corrections is to correct behavior, and that doesn’t always need to be done behind a double-perimeter, razor-wire fence,” Ferriter says.
Recidivism rates are one complicated reason why Ferriter says more treatment—and less conventional imprisonment—makes sense. In general, the frequency of repeat offenders in Montana is 39 percent (substantially below the national rate of 67 percent), and is largely attributable to substance abuse problems that could be treated, Ferriter says.
When it comes to sex offenders, who constitute about a third of Montana State Prison inmates, extremely low recidivism rates merit prison alternatives for low-risk sexual offenders, says Mike Scolatti, a Missoula psychologist who advocated the idea to the CAC. A random sampling of 222 sexual offenders released from prison following treatment from 1988 to 2005 found that 45 eventually returned to prison, but 41 of those were due to technical violations and only four—1.8 percent—resulted from new sexual offenses, Scolatti says.
“Recidivism rates [among sexual offenders] are a lot lower than what you see on the evening news, where you just see the guys who do horrific stuff,” says Scolatti. He and others, including Gutsche and Ferriter, say the general public needs to be better educated about the issue to encourage acceptance of community-based treatment. Ferriter says the DOC is in the “infancy stages” of pursuing a stand-alone treatment program for sexual offenders like programs the state has recently developed for felony DUI and meth offenders, but he reiterates that public safety is the first priority and says the public’s perception of safety regarding sexual offenders remains a substantial challenge.
While sexual offenses may account for a significant portion of the state’s male prison population, they aren’t among Montana’s top-ranking criminal offenses. The most frequent crime for both males and females is simple drug possession, followed by theft. Among women, issuing a bad check and forgery are next on the list, while males’ next most frequent crimes are felony DUI and burglary. In the state prison populations, drug possession is the second most prevalent crime for female inmates and the third most prevalent among male inmates.
Gutsche and others say these rankings—with the exception of felony DUI and burglary—should wake up Montanans who think most prison inmates are in for violent crimes.
“Simple possession is something we need to look at as a society, and we need to decide whether those offenders need to be in prison or whether they need to get help,” says Gutsche. “Issuing a bad check in and of itself is not a violent or dangerous crime—do we really want to put people who issue bad checks in prison?”
“The system as it is isn’t working. We’re incarcerating too many people and we need to really look at helping people who have troubles, but aren’t violent offenders, to stay in their communities and be productive.”
Daniel Abrahamson, legal affairs director for the national nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, told the CAC about California’s experience with the citizen-enacted Proposition 36, which mandated that people who commit nonviolent drug offenses be offered treatment instead of prison.
He says since its 2001 enactment, California has diverted 35,000 people a year from incarceration to treatment, saving an estimated $1.5 billion in the process and shelving plans for two new prisons.
“It’s had an enormous effect on reducing the state’s prison population and keeping people from cycling through our jails,” Abrahamson told the Independent. “The clear message from California is that you can’t incarcerate your way out of the drug possession problem—you can only treat it.”
While California’s corrections system is exponentially larger than Montana’s, Abrahamson says a substantial meth problem among offender populations is a notable similarity.
“It’s saving California hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t save us money, too,” says Gutsche.
The CAC’s eventual recommendation on the issue is worth noting. In its draft recommendations, the CAC proposed enacting a law similar to California’s Proposition 36, but backed off the idea in its final proposals, instead suggesting up to two years of study of non-prison alternatives for drug offenders.
Gutsche says the CAC wanted more information about how such a law would interact with Montana’s existing corrections network and what the financial implications would be before proposing the change.
For his part, Abrahamson says the watered-down recommendation comes across as a “dodge,” since the CAC already put substantial work into researching ways to tweak Montana’s system.
“It strikes me that two years is probably one-and-a-half years longer than is needed to actually assess the problem and figure out how to solve it,” he says. “I urge Montana to move expeditiously because I think the answers are there, and that these are real lives, and a two-year wait affects hundreds if not thousands of people. I think the answers are closer at hand than Montanans realize.”