The Law and Justice Interim Committee members spent two full days in March in the Magic City experiencing the realities of Montana’s criminal justice system by touring local facilities and listening to people who live or work in the facilities.
First though, several county attorneys discussed their legislative priorities for the 2019 session.
The committee also continued its study of the extent of the use of solitary confinement in Montana, learning about actions of other states to reduce or eliminate the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. In addition, the Department of Corrections staff provided an agency update.
After the morning session, the committee began its site visits at the Ted Lechner Youth Services Center. The center is a secure detention facility for juveniles who need to be held pretrial. The center also provides treatment programs and operates a shelter care facility. While the committee focused on the detention facility aspect of the center, it also toured and heard about the other services offered through the center. During the several hours spent at the center, the LJIC learned that:
The LJIC then headed down the street to the Montana Women’s Prison. Here, the committee visited the offender intake and screening area, cafeteria, library, and areas where medical, religious, treatment, and education services are provided. They also observed cells where additional bunks had been added to accommodate increasing inmate numbers as well as the prison’s dog training and boarding unit. In addition, the members spent time at a vacant locked housing unit to view the size and nature of those cells.
The LJIC started the second day at the Yellowstone County Courthouse, where members observed a treatment court in operation. CAMO Court (Courts Assisting Military Offenders) accepts only offenders with past or current military service or their immediate family members. An interdisciplinary team assists the treatment court judge in supervising the offender and to provide needed services to help the veteran transition back to the community or to succeed after court supervision ends. Team members included local law enforcement officers, DOC probation and parole staff, behavioral health treatment providers, case managers, a county prosecutor, and a defense attorney. Services provided can range from assistance finding the basics (housing, food, clothing, reliable transportation) to substance abuse treatment to other educational or vocational opportunities. Several participating veterans also were paired with local veterans who served as their mentors throughout the treatment court placement, which typically lasts at least 1 year and generally longer.
After observing CAMO court’s interdisciplinary team meeting and the open session in which the judge interacted with the participants, the LJIC members toured the Passages Women’s Center. This community corrections provider runs several programs out of its Billings facility, including a prerelease for female offenders, an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment unit, and an assessment and sanctions unit that screens female offenders and make recommendations for placements in other secure or treatment facilities. In addition, Passages offers various supervision options and services to the DOC and operates a Culinary Arts Program to help women nearing release from the prison to acquire skills and certifications that can lead to employment opportunities once released.
The LJIC rounded out the tours at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility. The detention center–or jail–houses 400+ individuals who are usually waiting for a court to resolve criminal charges pending against them. The facility also holds offenders while they await transportation to a Department of Corrections’ facility or a federal agency to take custody of them. Here, the Yellowstone County sheriff and detention center staff led the LJIC members through the various parts of the facility, including the booking area, the unit for female detainees, and the area used to hold offenders who are in disciplinary detention or being held away from the general population. The members also walked through what will be the facility’s new wing when it is completed later this spring.
Finally, the LJIC members returned to their meeting room to receive additional comments from the public. After expressing their gratitude for the staff in the tour facilities and discussing their reactions to the tours, the members directed staff to organize a panel for the May meeting to discuss possible statutory or funding changes the committee or the legislature could consider related to crime victims’ rights. They also requested an update and statistics from the Board of Pardons and Parole and chose other topics on which they’d like information at future meetings. For the solitary confinement study, the LJIC will continue learning about other states’ changes and begin to discuss what recommendations, if any, the committee would like to make to the Legislature.
The LJIC meets again on May 21 in Helena. An agenda and meeting materials will be available in mid-May. For more information about the committee, please visit its website or contact committee staff.
Committee website: www.leg.mt.gov/ljicCommittee staff: Rachel Weiss, firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-444-5367