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Old 02-20-2005, 09:04 PM
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Default Article: State faces an influx of 2,000 more prisoners


State faces an influx of 2,000 more prisoners

Gazette State Bureau

HELENA - About 1,800 new felons are going to be in state custody within the next four years, and lawmakers need to find some place to put most of them, Corrections Department officials told a legislative panel Monday.

Agency officials outlined several ideas to deal with the influx, including building 500 new cells at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, doubling the size of the state's private prison in Shelby or a series of stopgap expansions across the agency that would give lawmakers a chance to decide what role the private prison should play and how the state should deal with drug-addicted criminals.

The issue came up in a meeting of the Corrections Subcommittee, a group of representatives and senators who focus on the Department of Corrections budget.

Convict increase

About 640 more convicts are expected to be behind bars by the middle of 2009, said Joe Williams, administrator of the department's Centralized Services Bureau. As of last week, Montana State Prison had room for about 50. About 721 more convicts are expected to be on probation or parole by 2007, he said, and another 468 will need to be placed in a pre-release center by 2009.

The state has first call on all the prison cells at the Crossroads Correctional Center, a private prison in Shelby. The U.S. marshal for Montana can house up to 88 federal inmates in the prison through its own contract with Corrections Corp. of America, the company that owns and runs the facility. One quick fix to part of the state's prison problem is to bump the federal government from the prison and replace those inmates with state prisoners. That would give the state room for 88 more inmates, Williams said.

Williams said expansion of pre-release programs could include room for hundreds of new convicts and converting an older part of the prison into a so-called "sanction center" for people on parole or probation.

Hard time for 30 days

Currently, people on parole or probation who get into trouble may be sent to a sanction center in Missoula, where they serve hard time for up to 30 days. But when that center is full, many end up in prison, which is the most expensive place to house a felon in state custody, Williams said.

Williams also discussed expanding regional prisons.

Much of the debate centered on building 500 new prison cells, either in Deer Lodge or at the Shelby private prison. The private prison can expand more quickly than the state-owned prison, but such an addition would almost double the size of the prison and would represent a major commitment to the future of private prisons, Williams said.

If Montana filled the 500 new cells, the state would have a one-third of its inmates in a private prison, compared with just over 6 percent nationally, agency statistics show.

Costs for the plans ranged upward from about $16 million more than what the department is spending now.

At the request of the governor's office, the department came up with another option that doesn't call for major expansion but envisions a series of steps:

Replace all the federal inmates in Shelby with state inmates.

Pre-release centers around the state would expand to create 287 new slots for felons who can be safely placed in community settings.

Regional prisons, to be run by counties, not private corporations, would expand to create room for another 152 state inmates.0

Create a second sanction center at the Montana State Prison.

David Ewer, Gov. Schweitzer's budget director, said that option reflects the direction the governor wants to go with corrections, which is to lock up violent offenders but try to be more creative and effective in dealing with drug addicts, particularly people hooked on methamphetamine.

Ewer said the Schweitzer administration knew its plan doesn't solve the long-term problem of an expanding prison population, but it would give the state time to plan addiction prevention programs and treatment programs for addicts once they enter the criminal justice system. Locking up addicts isn't a cure and it costs a lot of money, he said.

"In a maximum security cell, people are the farthest away from becoming responsible, productive citizens," he said, adding that he'd like to see a long-term solution that doesn't call for building 500 new prison cells at all.

Williams echoed those thoughts at Monday's meeting.

"The problem isn't with (inmates') criminal thinking, it's with their addiction," he said.

But some lawmakers wondered if the governor's solution wouldn't just postpone dealing with the need for a bigger prison complex.

"Won't this leave us a bit behind the eight ball two years from now?" asked Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter.

Dwight MacKay, Montana's U.S. marshal, urged the committee to find other solutions that would not bump federal inmates from the Shelby prison. All of those prisoners are Montanans, including many American Indians awaiting federal trials in Montana.

The committee is expected to make a decision Friday. The committee's vote is the first in a long series of steps to determine how much money the Corrections Department can spend and where that money will go
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