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State begins review of criminal justice system, seeks cuts

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By Amy Beth Hanson Associated Press

HELENA (AP) – The state of Montana is reviewing its criminal justice system with the goal of reducing spending and lowering recidivism rates while improving public safety.

State officials say despite a general decline in the crime and arrest rates between 2008 and 2014, the state prison population and corrections spending have increased.

“A thorough examination of our criminal justice system is long overdue,” Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday. “We must determine what is driving the growth in our prison population. We’re at a pivotal moment as our prison population nears capacity, and we must take a proactive and collaborative approach to establishing a more effective system that bolsters public safety.”

The state’s total crime rate decreased by 7 percent from 2008 to 2014, while the prison population increased by 7 percent. Total corrections spending over that same period of time has increased 16 percent, from $157 million to $182 million, officials said.

Bullock, Sen. Cynthia Wolken of Missoula and District Judge Ingrid Gustafson of Billings announced the start of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Montana. The Justice Center of The Council of State Governments along with the state Commission on Sentencing will examine the state’s crime and arrest trends, sentencing laws, types of supervision and the effectiveness of its rehabilitation programs and recommend improvements.

“We’re eager to get to work exploring potential changes in our criminal justice system and how we can reinvest in programs that are proven to work,” said Wolken, chair of the 15-member commission. “Everything’s on the table,” she said, including possible sentencing reductions.

The commission – which includes members from the legislative and judicial branches along with the governor’s administration – will recommend legislation based on the results of the study.

The CSG Justice Center is a national nonprofit organization that has conducted the Justice Reinvestment program in 21 other states. It will seek input from judges, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, parole board members, law enforcement officers and victim advocates, officials said.

Carl Reynolds, the senior legal and policy adviser to CSG’s Justice Center, said he’s impressed with Montana’s drug courts and that offenders can be sentenced to the Department of Corrections, which determines the best placement in an array of options from probation to pre-release to treatment programs to prison. But he said 85 percent of people on parole or probation are violating the terms of their release and the state needs find a way to make its supervision more effective

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