- Associated Press - Thursday, June 23, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana’s overcrowded jails and prisons are prompting state officials to take a serious look at the complex issues behind the rising number of arrests, recidivism and policies that may be responsible for a surge in incarcerations.

With Montana’s prisons already over capacity, the state may have to invest tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to expand capacity if the prison pipeline continues unabated.

The state’s Commission on Sentencing on Thursday began considering more than two dozen policy options offered by the Council of State Governments, a national nonprofit that advises local governments on public policy. But the commission is far from reaching consensus on recommendations, including drafting new legislation that could alleviate the overcrowding.

On Wednesday, researchers from the council’s Justice Center told the commission that the state could cut spending on jails and prisons by reducing the number of repeat-offenders and those who violate parole, which the researchers suggested sometimes lasts far too long.

The council’s Justice Center launched a review of Montana’s criminal justice system last November and has suggested the state consider revamping presentencing guidelines, eliminating mandatory minimum jail sentences on some offenses and look into how traffic offenses are handled.

Overcrowding at jails and prisons is “an indication that something is amiss in this bulge in the prison population. But that bulge is throughout the system,” said Carl Reynolds, a senior legal and policy adviser for the Justice Center.

The state’s prison system has a capacity for about 2,550 inmates, but housed more than 2,580 inmates as of Thursday, according to state prison officials. That means some prisons could be doubling up inmates in some cells.

Montana has the highest rate of jail incarceration among states in the northern Rockies and northern plains, according to U.S. Department of Justice. The average time spent in Montana jails is longer than in other nearby states.

The growing number of drug arrests, which rose 62 percent between 2009 and 2015, and high rates of recidivism are helping fuel the problem.

Mark Murphy, who represents the Montana County Attorneys Association, said his group could support changes in how some low-level crimes are handled.

“We understand that there are cost concerns,” he said, “but you want to take into consideration public safety at every step.”

Some of the options the Justice Center offered could require a comprehensive adjustment in the state’s philosophical approach to crime and the people who commit them, including a deeper consideration of punishment and rehabilitation.

That could mean expanding deferred prosecution programs and special problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, that emphasize treatment not jail time. In many cases, offenders cannot afford bail and remain behind bars even if they pose no immediate danger to the public. Some members of the commission suggested that counties consider looking into confining offenders in their own homes, using electronic monitoring systems, instead of throwing them in jail.

Those considerations, Reynolds said, “doesn’t mean we’re being soft on crime. It means being smart about crime.”

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