This is the third of a four-part series examining extensive sentencing and correctional reforms passed by the 2017 Legislature, aimed at reducing Montana’s prison populations.
Ex-con Anthony Valderrama has his own business, a home and a family, and has been out of prison for three years – but still faces another 11 years of supervision by the state Department of Corrections, on a drunk-driving conviction.
Under sentencing reforms passed by the 2017 Montana Legislature, that time could be shortened to three or four years, or less.
Valderrama, 55, says that change would be a great gift for him and many other ex-cons who have turned their lives around.
“I’d be able to go home and see my family (in California) without having to get a travel permit,” he told MTN News in a recent interview. “Say I wanted to take a vacation and go to California. I could go to California. … I mean, I’m a good citizen.”
Lawmakers passed and Gov. Steve Bullock signed a half-dozen laws this year designed to reduce Montana’s prison population and the number of criminal offenders on supervision.
Offenders on supervision must report routinely to a state probation officer and get approval for many things any other citizen takes for granted, like traveling or moving.
Most of the changes are designed to give low-risk offenders a clearer path to parole and/or eventual freedom from the correctional system, if they do required treatment and keep a clean record.
For example, if an offender is on probation and meets all conditions of supervision, a probation officer now must recommend ending supervision after nine-to-24 months, depending on the offender’s risk level.
Research has shown that offenders on supervision more than two or three years rarely re-offend. But in Montana, 60 percent of the offenders who completed their supervision in 2015 had been on the books more than three years and 31 percent more than five years.
Valderrama and another former offender who spoke with MTN News, Dave Clark, say any change that gives offenders a set goal for release, or ending supervision, is a positive step.
“I think there’s got to be a point where you give a guy a chance,” says Clark, who had his supervision shortened on a drunk-driving sentence. “The person who has turned their life around, it’s clear, it’s obvious. … Give them a defined path on what they need to do.”
Clark, 55, is now a construction contractor in Helena.
Yet both men say the Corrections Department still often seems like a bureaucratic maze, overloaded with too many offenders and paperwork duties.
Offenders can get caught up in the maze, made to cycle through the same programs again and again, both inside the department or among its web of private contractors, they say.
Clark says the caseload for probation officers is far too high, making it difficult for them to provide the one-on-one help that many offenders need to stay on track.
Reducing that caseload by getting low-risk offenders off the books can’t help but improve the system, they say.
“That would alleviate a lot of problems on corrections – I mean, overcrowding of jails, of prisons, of the pre-release centers and people sitting and waiting,” Valderrama says.
Another huge problem faced by people with a criminal record is housing, says Valderrama.
“(Landlords) won’t rent (to ex-cons),” he told MTN News. “They won’t rent to violent offenders or sexual offenders. And if you do rent something, you have limited funds, so it’s not the best living environment.”
One of the laws passed by the Legislature attempts to address housing for criminal offenders.
The law allows the Corrections Department to give rental vouchers to people getting out of prison, for up to three months, and creates a grant program to fund housing services – but provided no specific money for either one.
Clark and Valderrama also say any reforms to streamline the system should be applied to private contractors, who can exercise considerable power over when an offender is released from a program they’re running.
Clark says he had mostly good experiences with treatment and programs run by contractors, but that he’s known offenders who’ve had to take the same programs, over and over.
“It all depends on the contractor,” says Valderrama. “For some programs, you’re just a number, you fill the bed. You have somebody who comes through a pre-release center, has already been through the program once, they get reassessed and they have to take all the same classes again.”
Bree Derrick, a staffer for the Council of State Government’s Justice Center who is helping Montana implement the changes, told MTN News that one aspect of the reforms is meant to prevent unnecessary programming: A “risk and needs assessment” for every offender.
“Cycling through programs more often has to do with the way we’re screening people and assessing them, and directing them into programs, than it does with anything else,” she says. “We’re working to make sure we’re controlling who is getting referred into programs, so we’re targeting those people most in need, and providing services they actually need, instead of one-size-fits-all.”
Reg Michael, the new director of the Corrections Department, says the new laws provide specific guidelines “to really keep everyone on a consistent track,” both inside and outside the agency.
“We’ve done a great job of separating individuals from the community at large, but we haven’t done as good helping people develop skills that will allow them to remain in the community once released,” he says. “I think we can do a better job, and I think these legislative actions will give us an opportunity to do a little better.”
Tomorrow: The role of Montana’s multimillion-dollar mix of private corrections contractors in the reforms.