With offenders returning to prison at staggering rates nationwide, momentum is building in Montana to reduce recidivism

By Sean Forbes

We’ve all heard some version of this story before. In a population-small state like Montana, maybe it happened to a friend, or the friend of a friend, or perhaps a neighbor.

The story goes like this: A person is sentenced to prison; they serve time and get released; and then, it happens all over again. It’s usually summed up with a metaphor comparing prison gates to turnstiles at the ballpark.

Around the United States, up to 60 percent of inmates released from prison make a return trip. Known as recidivism, it is specifically the reincarceration of an offender within three years of their release.

In Montana, that costs taxpayers between $97 (men) and $104 (women) per day for incarceration at a state facility, as opposed to around $5 per day required to supervise someone on probation or parole.

It’s not a recent trend. But as state-run facilities operate at capacity and administrations look to save every dollar, a question has crept into the discussion.

What if the return trip to prison is not entirely the offender’s fault?

“Until now in a lot of places, including Montana … the idea was, once they’re done we don’t owe them any favors,” said Montana Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, chair of the legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee. “We were pretty much [saying] ‘sink or swim,’ and a lot of them sink real fast.”

Those sentiments are echoed around the country, and across the aisle.

“Without education, job skills, and other basic services, offenders are likely to repeat the same steps that brought them to jail in the first place,” said Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, in a state-by-state look at recidivism rates – the first of its kind – released by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Center on the States in 2011 under the title, “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons.”

RECIDIVISM

More than 95 percent of the U.S. prison population will eventually be released.

For the Treasure State, according to the Department of Corrections 2013 Biennial Report, that means about 1,200 inmates return to their communities each year. Of those, nearly 40 percent – around 460 offenders – will likely be imprisoned again within three years.

In terms of a return on taxpayers’ investment, that statistic is discouraging. However, recidivism isn’t all that clear-cut.

There are two ways to trigger a return to prison. The first is a new conviction, and the second is a technical violation of the terms of release. Those can range from failed urine analysis to missed meetings with parole or probation officers.

“You can imagine when someone leaves prison, they get paroled, they’re on a little bit of shaky ground when they first get out,” said Mike Batista, Director of the Montana Department of Corrections. “There are a lot of things they need to do to be successful.”

On one hand, many are successful.

Montana ranks among the best in the nation for the fewest offenders committing new crimes. As detailed in the Pew report – the most recent and comprehensive data available – Montana led the U.S. from 2004-2007 at 4.7 percent, a stark contrast to Alaska’s 44.7 percent.

But on the other hand, Montana is average. Its overall recidivism numbers, including new crimes and technical violations, are on par with other states at about 40 percent.

“Quite literally, you are walking out of the gate with no money,” said Sam Yates, a former Montana State Prison inmate now living in Missoula. “So if you don’t have a support system outside of that, guess what? You aren’t going to make it.”

Yates, 55, served 20 years for a deliberate homicide conviction resulting from a midnight altercation with a man who broke into his car. Yates was released in 2012 from the correctional facility located in Deer Lodge.

“They got guys in there that [made] mistakes and if it weren’t for one particular instance, or maybe two instances, they were regular law-abiding citizens just like everybody else,” Yates said. “Then they end up in prison, and it’s such a hard cycle to break once you get out. You have to have a plan on what you’re going to do or you’ll end up right back in there.”

While Yates has been able to keep to his plan, not everyone is so fortunate.

Complicating elements are often substance abuse and mental illness, which underlie many of the most common prison-worthy crimes in Montana, including felony drunk driving, drug possession and sale, and theft.

“The deck is definitely stacked against them,” said Rick Winking, a licensed addiction counselor with a private practice in Bozeman, describing the paradox of conditions like drug addiction. “You have to understand, with substance abuse everybody is a victim.”

A SHIFT IN THINKING

“Nobody goes to Alcoholics Anonymous because they are having a run of good luck,” Winking said.

Likewise, no one enters the department of corrections for doing everything right.

But these days the philosophy concerning prison is changing, moving from a focus on punishment toward what Rep. MacDonald calls “restorative justice.”

“[It’s] rethinking what the purpose of the criminal justice system is, and re-purposing it to be essentially more successful and effective in repairing the harm that was done in the community,” MacDonald said, adding that it’s an approach that addresses both victims and offenders.

That concept is part of a growing awareness that the justice system can be hard to escape, according to Bozeman defense attorney Brigitte Carneal.

“Maybe we are setting them up for failure,” Carneal said. “We have very few resources statewide to really assist people in making change.”

Yates acknowledges the need for that assistance, and how nonexistent it has been.

“I actually think it would make a world of difference,” Yates said. “Right now, from the point of view that the parolee has, that’s all pie in the sky. It just isn’t happening.

“When I got out, I was handed a piece of paper with about three or four phone numbers on it … That was the extent of their help.”

MAKING THE ESCAPE

Keeping former inmates out of prison isn’t just a dollars-and-cents issue. There are broader benefits to reducing recidivism, like the corresponding reduction in overall crime rates.

“A number of states have started figuring out that recidivism is very costly, and that once someone has completed their sentence and paid their debt to society that there is an enormous … community value in making sure they don’t bounce right back into the system,” MacDonald said.

Batista agrees. “If we had the framework in place … we [could] make a difference and sort of stop that revolving door.”

That means, as Batista described, dealing with issues like drug and alcohol treatment, housing, and mental illness. There is current legislation pending to address some of those problems, largely as a result of the passage of House Bill 68 – the Montana Reentry Initiative – during the legislature’s 2013 session.
Recidivism in the U.S.
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The Montana Reentry Initiative aims to unite and expand the efforts around the state to help offenders return to their communities – and stay there. In terms of boots on the ground, MacDonald pointed to Missoula and the work of Jana Staton and Partners for Reintegration, which has already brought together nearly 200 interested community members to examine issues like housing, employment, mentoring, and public awareness.

“I think they’re going to have to do something, unless they just want to keep on building prisons,” Yates said. “It’s a set-up-to-fail system … and once you’re in the system, it is really hard to make that break from [it].”

While reentry transition efforts in Montana are still in infancy, the state is – as Director Batista describes it – in a “unique” position. Montana already manages 80 percent of offenders outside of prison, in community corrections programs across the state. It’s a statistic Batista hasn’t seen the likes of anywhere in the country.

While it doesn’t guarantee more successful reform, the Montana DOC has more discretion than almost any other state when it comes to tailoring the management – or punishment – of offenders and focusing on the individual’s needs.

Neither MacDonald nor Batista made any suggestion that reentry work is a softening of the attitude or policy toward crime. Establishing transitional help is specifically geared toward those most likely to benefit and move on productively – the offenders who have paid their debt.

“If we do reduce that [recidivism] rate, we have the potential to save literally tens of millions of dollars,” MacDonald said. “Incarceration is one of the most expensive things the state of Montana does.”

This story was first published in the winter 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.