Senate Finance and Claims strips funding for Arizona prison beds from budget bill

Amendment added by House Republicans appropriated nearly $8M for 120 CoreCivic beds

By: - April 11, 2023 5:30 pm

The Montana State Capitol photographed on Feb. 11, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee voted Tuesday to strip out from the budget $8 million that would be used to fund 120 CoreCivic prison beds in Arizona for Montana prisoners during the coming biennium.

The committee voted 14-5 in bipartisan fashion on an amendment to remove the funding for the out-of-state prison beds Republicans added into House Bill 2 in the House Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, spoke in favor of the amendment from Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, telling the committee the $8 million in out-of-state beds was not an idea that went through the Section D subcommittee, which had looked at three other routes to try to increase community corrections bed space for people ready to transition out of prison, including freeing up around 50 community corrections beds and bringing a pre-release facility online in Flathead County.

McGillvray said he had spoken with the Governor’s Office’s Budget Director Ryan Osmundson and told the committee Osmundson had agreed that if Montana gets to a situation where it needs the extra prison beds, lawmakers could run a supplemental measure to add the funding – something a Department of Corrections spokesperson said the department took note of during executive action.

“We know that we’re freeing up a significant amount of beds, easily 100-plus. So, I don’t feel like, or think, that we need these beds in Arizona,” McGillvray said.

Further, McGillvray said that there are 50 community corrections beds coming online through work the subcommittee did on the budget bill, and another “efficiencies in community corrections” effort allowing community corrections officials to move the best-performing inmates who are on the verge of being ready for release out within four months instead of six or seven.

“It allows you to free up a bed in four months,” said Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte. “In theory, they remain a ‘resident,’ so they still have all the wraparound case management services … but it allows that residential bed to become open. That in turn creates a ton of space.”

Both McGillvray and Lynch pointed to House Bill 426 from Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billings, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, as something that could free up prison beds for some of the 200+ inmates awaiting transfer to state prison.

Yakawich’s bill would allow the Department of Corrections to transfer a prisoner within 14 months of being eligible for parole to a prerelease or treatment center to ready them for release back into the community.

An amendment the committee adopted on HB2 Tuesday would provide two full-time-equivalent positions to the Department of Corrections through a one-time appropriation to work with nonprofits to establish prerelease centers for the purpose of preparing those inmates for those next steps under the program in HB426.

Lynch said roughly 50 beds would be added by funding the Flathead County Prerelease Center through House Bill 5, along with more than 60 sex offender beds funded through the same bill, which he said would come online sometime in the next 15 to 20 months.

Lynch said the Boards of Pardon and Parole had asked for a full-time position serving victims, which lawmakers added to the budget – saying that position could work on the institutional screening committee half of that time – working to ensure parolees are ready for parole once they are eligible.

The committee also adopted one of Lynch’s amendments Tuesday to increase the per diem paid to contracted community corrections providers for raises for employees in each of the next two years.

Lynch described the community corrections efforts as having a “cascading effect” that would open more prison beds by having more inmates in pre-release and treatment beds.

“I think just the combination of all those different pieces are what’s allowing us to move,” Lynch told the Daily Montanan.

Boldman told the committee the DOC and budget director had each responded to the Senate’s discussions to cut the funding and said she thought everyone was “happy with the amendment.”

Finance and Claims Chairman Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, said he would vote against the amendment because he didn’t want to have to come back and add supplemental funding for the extra beds down the road.

The five committee members who voted against the bill were Sens. Carl Glimm, R-Kila; Dan Salomon, R-Ronan; Mike Lang, R-Malta; John Fuller, R-Kalispell; and Esp.

Alex Klapmeier, a spokesperson for the DOC, said in a statement the department was thankful for the support it had received from the Governor’s Office and lawmakers to try to address capacity and infrastructure needs.

“The department will continue to monitor HB2 as it moves through the process and is grateful that it also contains the 50-bed community corrections capacity proposed by the agency, and will continue to evaluate all options provided by the legislature to most effectively manage the correctional population,” Klapmeier said.

The state’s current contract with CoreCivic runs through the end of June but can be renewed for up to 30 years after the original 1999 contract. CoreCivic operates the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, which contains 753 beds for which the state is paying $77 a day each, according to the contract.

DOC data shows most adult prison facilities in Montana were above capacity as of Tuesday, including the Montana State Prison and the Crossroads Correctional Center. The Dawson County Correctional Facility showed it had three open beds.

And the DOC’s table of community corrections beds showed a few of the centers had openings within a week or two, but mostly generally did not have openings for at least a month.

House Republicans, both when they added the funding to the budget in the Appropriations Committee and when they discussed the budget on the House floor, indicated they felt moving prisoners to Arizona at around $90 a day per person would be the cheapest and quickest way to get the people who have been sentenced but are sitting in county detention centers into prison.

“We need to figure out a way to deal with the math problem and this is the only alternative I’m aware of,” said Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, on the House floor.

Democrats had balked at the move, saying it went in the face of the legislature’s focus on rehabilitation and recidivism reduction in the state by moving prisoners hundreds of miles away from the families and communities.

They tried to get the funding stripped out of the bill on the House floor in an effort that was stymied by Republicans. Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, was the lone Republican to vote in favor of the amendment.

The House will still have to sign off on changes made to HB2 by the Senate, and if it doesn’t, members of both chambers will hash out the differences in a conference committee.

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.