- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Montana Standard, June 26, on a state office’s move to Helena:

All right, Attorney General Fox, your reputation depends on what you do now.

You could say that’s impossible - a previously distinguished career in public service can’t be defined by a single arbitrary decision about relocating 35 jobs.

But political careers have been made and lost on a lot less.

Here are the facts: Bureaucrats in the Department of Justice (which you, not the governor, control under a vagary of the Montana Constitution) made a decision to close the Title and Registration Bureau office in Deer Lodge.

When Department of Justice employees confirmed to The Montana Standard that the decision had been made, they reported that the building owner had demanded a significant rent increase (completely untrue). They further reported that they had searched Deer Lodge and Butte and failed to find a “suitable” building, necessitating the move to Helena.

Now we find out that the Department of Administration, which acts as the agent of the Department of Justice to find facility space, was asked only to look for space in Helena.

We also find out that no city officials in Deer Lodge, no county officials in Butte-Silver Bow and no local development officials in either community were asked about any alternate space available.

Your department has been caught lying to the public.

It is up to you to make this right.

Either negotiate a new deal with the current landlord or find space pronto in Deer Lodge or Butte. Both are eminently possible. We’d bet that in about an hour, we could find you several potentially suitable sites here in Butte. And if you actually tasked the Department of Administration with doing so, and they actually talked with local people, they could certainly do so in short order. At the governor’s order, they “stand ready” to do so.

It’s time to intervene, restore the integrity of your office and those who work for you, and settle this right. If somebody lied to you or the public, they should be gone. And those jobs should stay here in Southwest Montana without people having to commute 120 miles a day.

Do what’s right, Mr. Attorney General. We’re waiting and watching.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/292lZ2Y


Bozeman Daily Chronicle, June 26, on providing support for Montana’s veterans:

Most Americans, including Montanans, are gung ho about supporting our troops over in those faraway places where they are fighting those who would do us harm. That’s all well and good. But what about when they come back?

Over the last 10 years, some 560 Montana military veterans have committed suicide. That’s more 10 times the number of Montana service people who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - an average of 56 every year.

Those are numbers that should have us all very concerned.

State officials are exploring the idea of a Montana-based suicide prevention hotline to address the needs of veterans struggling to cope with life after the service. This effort deserves all of our support - including what’s needed from state lawmakers or Montana’s congressional delegation to get this hotline established.

There is a national veterans suicide hotline in place now. But obviously that isn’t getting the job done for Montanans. And state officials say that when they call that line, they are often answered by a recording telling the caller to dial 9-1-1. Even when they get a human being, they are often talking to someone on the East Coast who has little idea what Montana vets face.

Returning to Montana from a war zone can pose challenges peculiar to this state - like the lack of available mental health services and the stigma associated with seeking mental health help in rural areas. Returning Montana vets are likely to have far fewer programs aimed at addressing their problems and far easier access to guns than their urban counterparts.

To their credit, Montana State University officials have recognized these special needs and tailored academic and counseling programs for these returning vets. And those programs have helped many returning military men and women get their lives back on track.

But there are veterans in remote parts of the state who have never heard what MSU offers. A state hotline could make veterans aware of programs like these and give them hope and a reason to live.

War veterans have made immense sacrifices to protect our freedoms. The least we can do is offer them some hope when they get home. A state veterans suicide hotline will be a good first step toward that end.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/293DVez


The Independent Record, June 26, on building new schools to support a growing population:

As government entities everywhere have demonstrated, failing to plan for future infrastructure needs now can result in dire consequences later.

Take Helena Public Schools, for example, which has put off its maintenance needs for so long that property owners are likely facing sizeable tax hikes just to bring local school buildings up to par.

But East Helena Public Schools officials are doing what they can to avoid writing another cautionary tale.

“If we learn from history - which I hope we do because there’s no sense in teaching it in school if we don’t - the history would say that in the next 50 years you’re going to need three more school buildings,” East Helena Public Schools Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said.

“Well, where are you going to put those school buildings?” he asked.

Dartman field appears to be the best answer.

The 50-acre parcel adjacent to Radley Elementary School would be big enough for two elementary schools and one middle school. And population projections for the area suggest the school district is going to need them.

The East Helena district extends all the way to Meagher County, and projections suggest 10,000 more people will move into the Helena Valley within the next 20 years. New development in the Mountain View Meadows and Canyon Ridge subdivisions alone are expected to bring an additional 14 students into the East Helena district each year.

And the district’s three schools are bursting at the seams as it is.

The school district had a student population of 1,208 at the end of the school year and has a maximum capacity of about 1,300. Even if officials were to remove the roughly 200 East Helena students who live in other districts — which is not something we are recommending - the three existing schools just aren’t going to be big enough to keep up with the expected population growth.

The Dartman field property is an ideal location for new schools for a variety of reasons.

One of the main benefits is its close proximity to the other East Helena schools, which would be convenient for the students, parents and staff shuttling back and forth among the various buildings.

The property also has sewer and water utilities available, which is particularly important for fire protection, as a well would not provide a high enough volume of water to run an indoor sprinkler system.

In addition to that, the owner of the land has offered to donate it at no cost. The school district will have to pay about $90,000 in administrative costs and at least part of the $1.3 million needed to clean up the lead pollution on the property, but Whitmoyer says that’s more cost effective than any of the alternatives.

We aren’t necessarily saying the district should start building schools on Dartman field any time soon.

But we have no doubt school district officials are going to need this property one day, and it’s a good idea for them to strike while the iron is hot.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/292mKZZ


Billings Gazette, June 27, on reforming Montana’s criminal justice system:

Montana jails people at a higher rate than any of its neighbor states.

In 2013, Montana jailed 360 people per 100,000 population, according to information from the Justice Center of the Council on State Governments. The rate was 150 in Minnesota, 220 in North Dakota, 240 in Nebraska, 260 in South Dakota, 280 in Idaho, 290 in Colorado 320 in Wyoming and 350 in Utah.

Montana’s jails and prisons are at capacity now. Drug cases and offenders committing new crimes or violating probation/parole conditions account for most of the increase in the number of arrests between 2009 and 2015. In 2015, there were 30,890 arrests in Montana, compared with 26,934 in 2009.

Montana law officers made 2,000 more drug arrests in 2015 than in 2009. The number of felony drug arrests doubled and the number of misdemeanors increased by 47 percent.

“Unless the state acts, the prison population is projected to continue to increase 17 percent by 2025, requiring tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in new spending,” according to the Justice Center’s report to the Montana Legislature’s Commission on Justice, which was created to make recommendations to the 2017 session.

Change in Idaho

The state of Idaho did a comprehensive assessment of its criminal justice system and made changes to reduce repeat offenses. Idaho switched from a system based on punishment and shame, which have been scientifically proven to be ineffective at reducing repeat offenses, according to the Justice Center. Instead, Idaho began using corrections models that have been proven to change offenders’ behavior and reduce the likelihood that they will commit more crimes.

Among the changes credited with improving Idaho’s system are new laws that set minimum treatment standards for offenders and mandate risk assessments for all offenders.

Other states have invested in treatment for the highest risk offenders because research shows that the biggest benefits come from getting the toughest cases drug-free and employed. Reform states also have started writing performance standards into treatment contracts with private providers.

In Montana, even when a new program is adopted, there is a tendency to try to do it on the cheap. That approach doesn’t work with corrections programs. Fidelity to the most current standards of proven-successful models works; cutting corners leads to failure.

Improving health care for offenders throughout the system will require public investment. But the costs can be managed with smarter planning and implementation. For example, everyone who qualifies for Medicaid should be enrolled, so Medicaid can cover their treatment costs with the federal government paying about two-thirds. Some offenders have private insurance, so the system needs to screen everyone for coverage.

Legislation for 2017

After reviewing eight addiction treatment and pre-release programs for Montana offenders, the Justice Center found that they were treating people for an average of seven months, but weren’t individualizing treatment as much as they should. The center recommended that the state consider making treatment fit individual needs and capping length of stay at three months for most participants. That could allow the programs to treat twice as many people at only slightly higher overall costs.

The Commission on Justice has a lot of work to do if the panel is going to propose legislation in January. Yellowstone County has much at stake because the overflow in the state prison system is staying in our overcrowded jail. All Montanans have a stake in stopping the revolving door of probation-prison-parole-prison.

The problems are complex. Lawmakers and those running for state office need to educate themselves now about the correction system’s challenges. Montanans must demand solutions that are based on the evidence of what really works to get people out of the system for good.

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