Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News
HELENA, Mont. – Montana’s probation and parole programs don’t necessarily help criminal offenders trying to succeed outside of prison, and need reforms that will lead to incarcerating fewer people, a report from the American Civil Liberties Union-Montana says.
“People (are) trying their best to stay on track and get their lives together, but they found it was impossible, based on the rules imposed on them,” said SK Rossi, advocacy and policy director for ACLU-Montana.
The 52-page report said the state’s system of community supervision for offenders acts more like a “feeder of incarceration” rather than a path to rehabilitation, sending people to prison for technical violations of onerous conditions.
“We’re seeing that individuals are set up to fail,” added Zuri Moreno, an advocacy/policy assistant for ACLU-Montana. “There are just these high expectations that individuals can’t meet on probation and parole … and then they’re being returned to our prison system.”
The report recommended several reforms, including more access to local mental-health and drug treatment, more realistic goals for parolees and probationers and assistance in finding housing.
It also said that Native Americans are sent back to prison from parole or probation at much higher rates than other offenders, and that the Department of Corrections needs more staff that are Native Americans and more reliance on tribal programs.
State Corrections Director Reg Michael told MTN News Monday that it would be premature to comment on a lengthy report he hasn’t yet read.
However, he said in a statement that he’s met personally with members of several Indian tribes in Montana on how the state can work with tribes to “reduce the over-representation of Native Americans in Montana’s correctional system.”
The 2017 Montana Legislature passed landmark sentencing-reform laws, including some designed to reduce the length of supervision for people with good behavior on probation, which is supervision by a probation-and-parole officer.
The ACLU’s report said more work needs to be done, to make the system more helpful to criminal offenders trying to succeed once they are sentenced to probation or released on parole.
The report said 462 Montanans were sent to prison last year for “technical” or compliance violations of the terms of their probation or parole – incidents that did not involve committing a crime. It also said 75 percent to 80 percent of people sent to prison for violating probation or parole have committed technical violations, rather than new crimes.
ACLU researchers sent questionnaires to people within the system and 94 responded. They also interviewed some who responded.
More than a third of those contacted said they had no housing when they were placed on supervision and few of them had any transportation to get to work, meet with probation officers or attend treatment programs, the report said.
“The existing supervision system penalizes people on supervision for the absence of services and assistance in the community, neither of which they can control,” the report said.
A former parolee, Melissa Smylie, spoke to reporters Monday as part of the ACLU’s news conference.
She said probation officers often worked actively against her efforts to try to get a job and stay out of prison, rather than being her advocate.
“Never once did they say, `You want to go to college? That’s great,’” Smylie said. “They said `You don’t go to college, because you’re a felon. You don’t get food stamps because your probation officer thinks you should go back to jail.’”