Criminal-justice reform bills advance at Legislature - KXLH.com | Helena, Montana

Criminal-justice reform bills advance at Legislature

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Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula

A state Senate panel Wednesday advanced a half-dozen bills designed to reduce Montana’s prison population through sentencing and probation-and-parole reforms – and the primary sponsor told MTN News she won’t be surprised if they pass.

“This is sort of a bipartisan effort to reform our criminal-justice system, so that we preserve our jails and prisons for people who really need to be there, and help unclog the various parts of the system that are currently clogged,” said Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula.

The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed six criminal-justice bills on Wednesday, mostly on unanimous votes, sending them to the floor for consideration by the full Senate.

Perhaps the most significant bill endorsed Wednesday was Senate Bill 63, sponsored by Wolken, to revise how and whether a criminal offender’s parole or probation is revoked.

Wolken said many of the people getting sent to prison in Montana are non-violent offenders violating their probation or parole, and that SB63 creates alternative sanctions and procedures that can help them avoid prison.

“We’re just cycling people through jails and prisons, which is the most expensive thing you can do,” she said. “Let’s just do some common-sense approaches before we send them to a $43,000-a-year prison bed.”

Wolken said crime rates in Montana have been relatively stable, so there’s no reason why its prison population should be increasing.

The reforms also are timely, she said, because they would save the state money when its budget is tight.

“I think it’s a good time to sort of realize these cost-savings now,” Wolken said.

During the past 18 months, Wolken chaired the Montana Commission on Sentencing, which was created by the 2015 Legislature to study the correctional system and come up with proposals to reduce prison populations but still maintain public safety.

While six bills were endorsed by the Senate committee Wednesday, two other significant proposals await action: SB64, which would create a professional, rather than volunteer, state Parole Board, and House Bill 133, which reduces some possible sentences for non-violent crimes.  

Other bills that gained Senate committee approval Wednesday include:

  • SB71, sponsored by Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, to create intervention hearings for parolees who violate their parole, rather than a revocation hearing.
  • SB65, sponsored by Wolken, to help people leaving prison find affordable housing.
  • SB67, sponsored by Wolken, to ensure that criminal offenders have access to intervention and counseling programs.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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