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Montana Cuts Inmates, Saves Money With 10-Bill Justice Reform Package

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Anders Hagstrom Justice Reporter
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Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed 10 bills Wednesday reforming the state’s bail sentencing policy to halt the prison overcrowding crisis.

The bills created a risk assessment tool for law enforcement to look to when determining a defendant’s bail. Similar to the assessment tool adopted by New Jersey in January, Montana will rank offenders on a low-to-high-risk scale, lowering bail costs for many inmates or releasing them altogether before their trials to ease the housing burden on state jails and prisons.

Montana is one of many states to adopt soft-sentencing justice reforms as a solution to its rising prison populations. Bullock said the state’s inmate population had been expected to grow 14 percent by 2023, KTVH reported Wednesday. Now, however, projections show taxpayers will save $69 million on prison costs.

“Through innovative and sensible solutions, we will save taxpayers money, improve outcomes for offenders, keep Montana communities safe, and provide more treatment options to address underlying mental health and substance abuse disorders,” Bullock told the Great Falls Tribune.

Treatment programs for drug offenders are growing in popularity across the country due to their low cost and high success rate relative to prison systems. Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Jersey and Texas have all passed legislation removing or reducing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

As with most recent justice reform legislation, Montana’s package enjoyed wide bipartisan support, with some of the bills passing unanimously.

“After 30 years working in the federal probation system, I’m convinced that focusing our actions on evidence-based practices and on outcomes is the right direction to take to improve public safety,” Montana Corrections Director Reg Michael told KTVH.

Bail reforms like Montana’s have not been universally popular, however. New Jersey law enforcement officers have expressed concern that the risk assessment tool recommends the release of too many offenders without bail.

Douglas Baudriz-Diaz, an illegal immigrant in New Jersey arrested for burglary in May, was released by the bail assessment only to burgle two more homes within the same week. The assessment doesn’t take immigration status into account.

“With the old bail guidelines, he would have been held in the [corrections center] with a bail between $10,000-$50,000 due to the degree of his charges,” the police report of his final arrest said.

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