Reforming criminal justice, bill by bill, with Missoula Sen. Cynthia Wolken 

Montana's criminal justice system is on the path to reform. Throughout the 2017 legislative session, state Republicans and Democrats both worked to rectify myriad problems with how the justice system handles criminals, including jail overcrowding and inconsistent sentencing guidelines. The legislature-wide effort culminated in the passage of a package of bills born of the interim commission on sentencing.

It was in no small part the work of Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, that helped get these bills across the finish line. Wolken introduced seven of the eight bills that ultimately became law, and asked Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, to carry the other in the House.

Wolken says her intent was to modernize the state's justice system, long hamstrung by an excessive focus on incarceration and out of line with evidence-based best rehabilitation practices. "We've been more concerned about sort of locking people up, and not really what happens on the other side of the wall," Wolken says.

We sat down with Sen. Wolken and asked her to walk us through how each of the eight bills, signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock in July, will affect Montana's approach to criminal justice, from victims to offenders.

HB 133: The bill that arguably received the most attention during the session, HB 133 takes major steps toward re-tiering jailable offenses. Wolken says the bill's most notable changes include statewide decriminalization of first-offense marijuana possession under one ounce and the closing of a loophole that allowed judges to sentence perpetrators of sexual offenses against children to probation. "Most Montanans do and should expect violent crime to garner more time in prison than nonviolent crime," Wolken says.

SB 59: Establishes what Wolken calls a "risk assessment tool" to be used during the pretrial phase to determine an offender's risk to public safety. This assessment is intended to reduce jail overcrowding, reserving space primarily for violent offenders. The bill also requires a "lethality assessment" that's designed, in part, to keep domestic violence offenders away from their victims if they're determined to present a significant threat to that person's safety.

click to enlarge Sen. Cynthia Wolken helped pass a raft of new bills aimed at reforming Montana’s criminal justice system. - PHOTO BY PARKER SEIBOLD
  • photo by Parker Seibold
  • Sen. Cynthia Wolken helped pass a raft of new bills aimed at reforming Montana‚Äôs criminal justice system.

SB 60: Streamlines the pre-sentence assessment process. In Montana, before a judge can hand down a sentence, a "pre-sentence investigative report" must be written. The reports help judges determine whether an offender might be better placed in treatment or in prison. Wolken says these reports can take up to four months to write, leaving offenders in jail while they're drafted. SB 60 designates specific employees to write the reports, and sets a 30-day deadline for their completion.

SB 62: Authorizes peer counseling as a treatment option for offenders with substance-abuse issues. Wolken says peer support was already utilized statewide, but can now be implemented as part of a convict's official treatment plan. Former offenders with a proven record of sobriety can help new offenders through the treatment process. Wolken says hearing from inmates who can "talk the talk" can be very effective for newer offenders.

SB 63: Effectively reduces the time that low-risk offenders remain on probation. Wolken says people are most at risk of reoffending within their first 12 to 18 months on probation. Yet Montana tends to impose lengthy probationary periods, extending into periods when offenders are considered low-risk. Wolken's goal was to prioritize resources toward ex-convicts who are considered more dangerous, and therefore more in need of supervision.

SB 64: Significantly revises operations of the state parole board. Previously, the board consisted of seven volunteer members who did not necessarily have a background in criminal justice or addiction and mental health services. As a result of SB 64, the board now must be composed of professionals in those areas. The bill also requires the use of a "structured decision-making grid" to help inform parole decisions. Wolken says the chief complaint she's heard about the board is that its decisions seemed arbitrary to offenders and their families. "This is just an attempt to create some expectations and some transparency," Wolken says.

SB 65: Helps former inmates navigate the process of finding housing after incarceration. Wolken says offenders often have serious difficulty finding housing while they're still inside prison, and that SB 65 will allow them to apply for housing assistance through the Department of Corrections for up to three months after they are released from incarceration. "The whole idea is, they're less likely to come back to prison and reoffend if the transition goes smoothly," Wolken says.

SB 67: Creates a standard for Batterer's Intervention Programming. BIP is required for offenders convicted of domestic violence. Programming varies widely across the state. Wolken says that in some communities with limited resources, it can entail as little as a six-question online survey. SB 67 requires that BIPs be built around evidence-based recidivism research.

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