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New state Corrections director: We’ll re-evaluate entire system

Senate confirms Gootkin Thursday
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Posted at 3:06 PM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 17:06:12-05

HELENA — Montana’s new corrections director says he’d like to examine the entire prison system in the coming year and then come before lawmakers with a plan to increase the number of ex-cons succeeding once they leave prison or state supervision.

Brian Gootkin, appointed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, said Montana’s rate of “recidivism” – the amount of offenders who relapse into the system after their release – is too high, and must be reduced.

“We have to re-evaluate the entire system,” Gootkin told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. “And once we do that … we plan to have a game plan to come to you and say, this is working, this isn’t working, this is where we need help.”

The state Senate Thursday unanimously confirmed Gootkin, the former sheriff of Gallatin County, as Gianforte’s director of the Corrections Department.

He takes over a department in charge of 15,000 criminal offenders, both in secure facilities and under state supervision, either on probation or parole.

The agency also was tasked in 2017 with implementing “justice reinvestment,” a series of reforms meant to stabilize or reduce the number of criminal offenders under state control. But, three years into the effort, there’s been little change in prison populations.

At Gootkin’s confirmation hearing Tuesday, fellow law officers, local government officials, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and others supported his appointment, praising him as excellent leader and communicator while leading the sheriff’s office in Montana’s fastest-growing city and county.

Mike Batista, a state corrections director under former Gov. Steve Bullock, said Gootkin has always been an advocate for more mental-health and substance-abuse treatment programs at the local level.

“I believe Brian’s local government experience will prove to be invaluable when designing and operating a corrections system that focuses on results,” Batista said. “All well-paved correction roads begin and end at the local level.”

Gootkin spent 27 years at the Gallatin County sheriff’s department, after four years in the Air Force at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.

He said he oversaw construction of a new jail in Gallatin County, but that it’s one of the few local jails in the state that is not overflowing, which is “not by accident.”

The recidivism rate for people leaving the Gallatin County jail is about 20 percent, he said Tuesday. The state system’s rate may be twice as high, Gootkin said, but the Corrections Department doesn’t have a consistent standard for measuring that rate, for various elements of the system.

“One of our goals is to come up with a Montana definition of recidivism,” he said. “In order to have accurate data, we need to have a defined goal.”

Gootkin told the committee that the Corrections Department is filled with dedicated people and has done a good job coming up with goals and strategies to attempt to meet those goals.

But it hasn’t designed reliable tools to measure whether those goals are being met, he said.

“I met with our quality-assurance people last week, and they went through all of these great programs … why we do what we do, and then at the end, I said `How do we know they’re working?’” he said. “They couldn’t tell me, and they said, that’s a weakness.

Gootkin said Gianforte has made it “crystal clear” to his cabinet appointees that they must achieve measurable, positive outcomes.