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A partisan war of words raged last week in Gazette guest opinions about a new contract (or lack thereof) with CoreCivic, which operates 70 private prisons nationwide, including the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.

The state of Montana has housed male inmates at Crossroads since August 1999. As of last week, about 550 Montana convicts were there, along with some federal prisoners.

The contract runs through Aug. 31, 2019, and calls for Montana to pay CoreCivic $72.14 per inmate per day. An unusual feature of the contract since 1999 is that $9.14 of the per diem for the first 500 inmates is considered a “use fee” that could be refunded to the state for the purpose of purchasing the facility at the end of the contract.

During the November special legislative session, Republicans, led by lawmakers from the Shelby area where CoreCivic is a major employer, called for Gov. Steve Bullock to renegotiate a long-term contract with CoreCivic that would keep the corporation owning the prison, but still transferring accumulated user fees to the state. They argued for a deal in which CoreCivic would pay $35 million cash immediately as part of a new long-term contract.

The Republican majority in the Legislature passed Senate Bill 9, which stipulates what must be done with “money received by the state and any savings realized by the state from contract renegotiations.” SB9 says the first $15 million would go to the state firefighting fund; the rest would be used for “essential services.” GOP lawmakers have said such a transfer would lessen the impact of cuts made to health and human services in the past year.

The Bullock administration has insisted that it will negotiate the best contract for the state, not necessarily what legislators pressured it to accept.

This contract drama opened just months after the 2017 Legislature and Bullock enacted a package of criminal justice reform laws designed to reduce Montana’s prison population. With state prisons and many county jails at full capacity, effective drug treatment and diversion to community programs are supposed to keep more people out of prison. Instead of paying to lock convicts up long term, the state is to focus on getting them sober and employed.

The push for a hasty long-term CoreCivic contract renegotiation is at odds with the fewer-prisoners goal.

However, neither the present contract nor the terms recently discussed between the state and CoreCivic require the state to pay for a minimum number of inmates. That is flexibility for the state to reduce its use as needed.

The state and CoreCivic have not agreed on a new per day rate. As reported early in April by The Gazette’s Phoebe Tollefson and Holly Michels, the state offered to pay $69 per prisoner day and receive $32.3 million in user fees. CoreCivic offered a payment to the state of $35.7 million along with a per day rate of $72.14 until June 30 of this year when the rate would rise to $75.58. Those offers were based on a contract that would run through the next biennium, ending June 30, 2021.

Partisan politics aren’t helping this complex negotiation. Under SB9, the CoreCivic terms would put the Montana Department of Corrections budget in a bind because the cash payment wouldn’t stay with the department, which would be responsible for a higher per day rate than budgeted for the coming year.

On April 4, The Gazette reported “Private prison deal stalls.” But last week state budget director Dan Villa insisted that negotiations are continuing. He and DOC Director Reginald Michael are representing the state.

“We’re trying to get a better deal,” Villa told The Gazette Thursday. “We’re still talking.”

Montana will need Crossroads for the next three years. CoreCivic needs to turn a profit on Crossroads. From our vantage point hundreds of miles from Helena and Shelby, it sure looks like there is an equitable solution to be found. It should be a good deal for Montana taxpayers overall, not just for a one-time payment.

— The Billings Gazette

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