The state’s top prosecutor, corrections officials and other department heads told the Montana Association of Counties Thursday about ways they’re adjusting to the new reality of dwindling funds and increasing demand for services.
Reg Michael, who heads the Montana Department of Corrections, said he understands what state leaders are trying to achieve in an era of dwindling resources by suggesting a reduction in prison and jail populations.
“I am still focused on public safety,” Michael said during MACo’s midwinter conference in Billings. "But the question becomes, does everyone sitting in a Montana State Prison cell or a county jail cell need to keep sitting there, or can we do some things with these folks? We’ve got to do something different, because what we’ve been doing for 30 years is not resolving the problem.”
The DOC is gathering evidence on programs that work to reduce recidivism, Michael said.
“If we don’t get (offenders) to think differently about the choices they are making, they will make the same choices,” he said. “There should not be free rides, but we should give people the opportunity to do something different, because when people recognize their mistakes and take advantage of their opportunities, they can become productive citizens.”
New state laws can initially help a handful of pilot communities, including Yellowstone County, State Sen. Cynthia Wolken of Missoula said. One, Senate Bill 65, awards a handful of places — Billings among them — with money to house what Wolken called “difficult offenders” upon their release from prison. The Montana Board of Crime Control will finalize those grants next month, said Wolken.
Legislators — including a sentencing commission that Wolken chaired while still in the Montana Senate — also tried to address the length of jail terms by shortening, to 30 days, the time requirement for parole and probation officers to complete their pre-sentencing reports.
“The best way to honor victims,” Wolken said, “is to make sure there are less of them. We really believe that.”
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox called substance abuse “the number-one issue in our state.”
“I know we have infrastructure issues and all kinds of things that county officials deal with,” Fox said. "But the evil that is lurking all the time is the substance abuse issue” that he said contributes to overcrowded county jails and hospital emergency rooms.
“It’s important that you put this at the top of your priority list, too,” he told local leaders. “We won’t solve it in the three years I have remaining as attorney general, but we have to get a nimble and adaptive plan together to save lives.”
With the Montana Healthcare Foundation as a partner, AID Montana seeks a comprehensive strategy to deal with the state’s growing substance abuse problem. Since 2010, drug-related offenses are up more than 70 percent, he said. One in five Montanans reported binge drinking within the last month. More than half the state’s drug investigations involved meth.
Fox said he met last month with a homebuilders association because “so many people who need treatment can relapse if they don’t have a job and a place to live. Home builders have a shortage of tradesmen,” and so the question becomes, “how do we get these individuals back into the workforce? All of them deserve a second chance, and maybe even a third chance.”
County commissioners, he said, can help by pushing mentoring programs in their communities such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Boys and Girls Clubs. “Solutions can’t come soon enough,” Fox said, advising those in the room to “put our political differences aside, roll up our sleeves, and let’s get to work.”
New funding realities
Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney; Mike Kadas, Department of Revenue director; and Sheila Hogan, director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, wrapped up the conference by talking about the effects legislative cutbacks are having on local communities.
Kadas said he’s holding 55 vacancies in his 620-employee department “just to meet the FY 2018 budget.” Among the protected group of workers are about 100 income tax auditors, "because they generate dollars and they also generate compliance."
Twenty-eight DOR offices, most of them in small communities, will close in the coming year as the department goes to a field office model, Kadas said.
Legislators trimmed $49 million over the biennium from Hogan’s budget, which will close 19 offices, including one in Red Lodge, and eliminate about 400 employees.
In light of the funding setbacks, both departments are making better use of their websites and call centers, Kadas and Hogan said.
“We have a call center answered by people in Montana,” Kadas said. “We’ve made a lot of changes to our website and to your ability to use it, and if something doesn’t seem right, tell us. Just try to keep the cussing down a little bit.”