Montana State Prison

Prisoners walk into a unit at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge in this file photo.

The number of prisoners in Montana under jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authority on Dec. 31 decreased by 3 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to a report recently released by the national Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The 43-page report is packed with a variety of stats related to a snapshot taken of people in correctional custody, including prison, local jails and treatment facilities, in every state on Dec. 31, and with year-long admission and release data.

This annual report shows there are lots of areas where Montana aligns with national trends. But perhaps one of the most interesting areas where Montana differs is in the number of prisoners who have been released from correctional custody and placed on some sort of correctional supervision.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics is part of the U.S. Department of Justice and is the country’s primary source for criminal justice statistics. The bureau’s “Prisoners in 2017” report, authored by two statisticians and released on April 25, presents final counts of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities on Dec. 31, 2017. It also details demographics, offender admissions to and releases from custody, and imprisonment rates, state by state over the entire year.

According to Tannyr Watkins, a Bureau of Justice Statistics spokesperson, the bureau’s statisticians send out a data collection form to all of the state department of corrections and federal Bureau of Prisons on January 2 of each year, and ask for responses to be returned no later than February 28. However, Watkins noted only about 25 states are able to meet this deadline. 

Watkins also said via email that the Bureau of Justice Statistics chooses to look at the number of people in prison on a single day, regardless of sentence length, because it gives a cross-sectional view of prisoners imprisoned on a “standard” day.

The Montana-specific 2017 prisoner cross-sectional view showed the number of prisoners in state or federal correctional custody on this day dropped from 3,814 in 2016, to 3,698 in 2017. The 2017 population total was 13 people higher than the 2015 year-end count, and one person lower than the 2014 count.

The report showed that Montana-specific data generally aligns with a national trend of less offenders in correctional custody on the given day, and although there are some nuances between the in-custody population at the national level and in Montana, the most difference seems evident in correctional facility release numbers over the entire year.

According to the recent report, the number of admissions to state and federal correctional facilities was largely unchanged from 2016 to 2017 at the national level, and correctional authorities released 3,600 fewer prisoners in 2017 than in the year before.

But in Montana, prisoners “admitted to state or federal correctional authorities with a sentence of more than a year” decreased less than half a percent, and prisoners released increased 8.8 percent.

Nearly 90 percent of these released prisoners were under some sort of post-custody supervision, like parole or probation. Of the prisoners released on supervision, 27 percent were placed back in custody for some sort of violation, the report shows.

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These Bureau of Justice Statistics findings line up with the findings released earlier this year in the Montana Department of Corrections’ 2019 Biennial Report. Both reports show between roughly 2,500 and 2,700 prisoners were released from correctional custody in 2017, and the DOC report shows that on June 30, 2018, 75 percent of the offenders under DOC jurisdiction that day were a part of community corrections programs.

The DOC’s 2019 biennial report also shows that all of the state’s adult offender programs have increased at least 7 percent, with the greatest increases being 36 percent in the adult female prison and 17 percent in adult probation and parole.

This correlates with the biennial report graphs that show well over 50 percent of the DOC’s budget goes to probation and parole divisions, community corrections contracts and secure custody statewide.

So, what do these larger numbers of people on some sort of correctional supervision in Montana mean?

According to Amy Barton, interim communications director for the DOC, the higher numbers of people being released on supervision is due in part to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative enacted by the Legislature in 2017.

“The criminal justice reform measures enacted by the Montana Legislature have been a major catalyst of change,” Barton said.

Barton explained that these reform measures aim to place prisoners in the least restrictive environment as possible, based on their sentencing, risk to re-offend and treatment needs.

Part of this placement is done by the Board of Pardons and Parole, which makes decisions about when a prisoners is eligible for and placed on parole, and was modernized as a result of the 2017 reforms.

Barton said the board has transitioned from volunteer based to a full-time, professional 5-person board, and she feels this transition may have also resulted in an increase of prisoners released on supervision.

Regardless the direct cause, Barton said the changes evident in the 2019 biennial report are only a small part of what’s to come.

“These reforms are long term,” Barton said. “A lot of changes are being initially enacted and we will see more of their impact in the years to come.”

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