The Montana Department of Corrections could be forced to make budget cuts it says would impact every aspect of its operations and cost the agency more money in the long run.

“These are absolutely going to substantially cost the department more,” Adrianne Cotton, government relations director, said.

The Department of Corrections, one of the three agencies that make up 85 percent of the state budget, is bracing to make $40 million in cuts over the next two years and eliminate 45 full-time employees, with potential to replace eight in other positions. The proposal cuts deeply into the department’s essential services and would likely impede its ability to provide legally mandated services for youth, comply with national standards on overcrowding, encourage lawsuits and ultimately risk the safety of both employees and the public.

State agencies were asked to recommend 10 percent cuts in response to lower-than-expected state tax revenue. Legislative estimates over-projected income taxes by $70 million and a devastating fire season overran fire budgets, causing Gov. Steve Bullock to dip into other state funds.

Because the Montana Constitution requires a balanced budget, the governor must either make mid-year budget cuts or call a special session and pass taxes to soften the blow. Many Democrats have vocalized support for a special session but no Republicans have publicly said they would be willing to consider raising taxes.

The law requires the budget cuts to be considered by the Legislative Finance Committee, which meets on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday is the earliest Gov. Steve Bullock could call a special session.

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Where will cuts come from?

Under proposed cuts to Corrections, several facilities in small communities will eliminate employees and could force families to relocate. Other facilities close entirely under the proposal.

At Pine Hills, a youth correctional facility in Miles City, 10 of 115 full-time employees will lose their jobs.

“It is questionable whether the small, rural community will be able to provide jobs that pay a comparable salary for the 10 individuals affected,” the Corrections’ proposal states.

The Pine Hills budget also drops by nearly $500,000, which could impact the facility’s ability to provide a safe and legal place for youth in its custody to live and provide food, education and medical care. Those services are mandated by state law.

The Youth Transition Center in Great Falls, which provides safe housing for youth who often need a structured environment after being released from Pine Hills, will close. Under the proposal, 11 employees lose their jobs and the closure eliminates one of the few housing options in the state for youth who need sex offender treatment. Those inmates would be placed in a separate section away from secure inmates at Pine Hills, Cotton said.

The proposal calls for closing the Lewistown Infirmary, which provides beds for 25 inmates in need of nursing home care. Those inmates would transfer to the Montana State Prison, which would add to the prison’s existing overcrowding problems.

“Reduced care may lead to increased liability for the state,” the proposal says.

But Cotton said the department is unsure if the same level of care could be provided and is looking for other options.

The infirmary is always full, with ever-increasing demand due to Montana’s aging prison population. The eight employees could be relocated while the remaining contract employees would lose their jobs, Cotton said.

A rush to save money during dire budgetary times could also hinder several efforts to save the department money in the long term. Corrections was in the process of moving offenders through the system by putting extra resources into backlogged cases and providing more treatment options to inmates, but steep reductions will halt several projects.

The cuts mean cancelation of a project to turn the boot camp on the Montana State Prison campus into a 60-bed chemical treatment unit. While intended to relieve a backlog of inmates waiting for chemical dependency treatment before being released, the scrapped project will fuel an already overcrowded prison with fewer inmates moving through the system.

“This situation would compound itself and lead to more inmates in secure care, and more offenders in county jails awaiting placements, which has a significant detrimental effect on DOC’s budget,” the proposal says.

The 2017 Legislature approved six new full-time employees to write pre-sentence investigation reports and established a new law requiring completion in 30 days. Corrections could not afford the hires putting the department in violation of the new state law. In addition, the department would maintain its backlog of reports, delaying cases and keeping offenders in county jails longer.

The cuts also eliminate more than $550,000 supporting parolees transitioning into the community, meaning longer stays in secure facilities.

Contracts with pre-release centers would drop by 5 percent, which could force the centers to take fewer inmates to minimize costs. Offenders would spend more time in county jails waiting for an opening.

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Litigation and safety concerns

Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, who worked to pass a package of criminal justice reform bills last session, said the cuts make the state vulnerable to a lawsuit and could reverse the progress legislators made over the past several years.

Dudik said the state underwent an expensive lawsuit when it was sued in 2002 for not providing sufficient indigent defense services. While the Office of the State Public Defender was created as a compromise after the case was settled, Dudik said it kept the state from being the only party crafting a solution. She expects that kind of legal intervention to happen again if the state were sued for something like overcrowding.

Dudik said the 2017 Legislature worked hard to pass bipartisan legislation that provided resources and guidance to mitigate problems like overcrowding and eventually lower the department’s exorbitant costs.

“We did substantial reforms in the way this state hasn’t seen for years,” she said. “I would hope that we would not lose all these reforms because we are in a tight budget situation.”

Some reductions could jeopardize the safety of department employees.

Corrections would eliminate funding used to replace batteries in staff radios. As a result, some guards could be left without a means of communication. A fund used to install new network based security cameras at the Montana State Prison will be eliminated. Only a quarter of the cameras have been installed so far and broken cameras could go without replacement for months, the proposal says.

The department didn’t respond to questions about whether employees were in situations with similar safety risks in the past.

A report from the Legislative Fiscal Division released Friday says some proposed cuts are illegal, which could force the governor to call a special session and if the Legislature chooses not to pass new taxes, would require lawmakers to make statutory changes to approve cuts.

The proposed cuts call for reduced payments to regional prisons in Glendive and Great Falls; the Crossroads Correctional Center, Montana’s only private prison; and the Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center. Reducing the amount Corrections pays county facilities for holding its offenders is illegal, the report says.

Under the best case scenario, this would reduce or eliminate programming in the facilities, threaten officer and inmate safety, “dramatically slow inmate movement through the correctional system,” compound overcrowding, and put the state at greater risk of being sued, the department wrote in its budget note.

Under the worst case scenario, the facilities could opt to end their contracts with the state, forcing the department to find new placements for 1,037 inmates.

Tom Green, warden at Dawson County Correctional Facility, said county officials would consider ending their contract with the state to free up bed space for jail commitments from Dawson County or any other county willing to pay for the bed space.

“We will not ask our taxpayers to subsidize the state of Montana in their shortcomings,” Green said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Phoebe Tollefson of the Billings Gazette contributed to this story.

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