Funding to send Montana prisoners to Arizona private prison reinstated by Senate committee

Butte Democrat says Republicans shoving funding ‘down Montana’s throat’

By: - April 21, 2023 7:57 pm

Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. (Provided by the Montana Department of Corrections.)

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee voted Friday to put the $3.9 million annually that would go toward funding 120 beds for Montana prisoners at a CoreCivic private prison in Arizona into a separate bill after nixing the funding several other times this session.

The vote to put the money back toward the out-of-state prison beds happened just before 6 p.m., Friday as the committee continued its day of work on Day 79 of the 90-day legislative session. The amendment was not posted on the legislature’s website when it was considered and approved.

The committee had just hours earlier rejected an effort to put the funding back toward the Arizona beds but decided to reconsider that action. It decided the new vehicle for the money would be House Bill 817, a bill with a broad title of “revise capital projects,” sponsored by Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda.

Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, said there “was some confusion” about the vote earlier in the afternoon when the effort to re-establish the plan funding the Arizona beds was rejected, 15-4.

The new mechanism to fund the prison beds through HB817 will be contingent on Senate Bill 95 passing and being signed into law. That bill makes theft of property worth $1,500 or more an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000 on a first offense. It also increases penalties for theft of under $1,500 to up to 6 months in jail and increases penalties for people who write bad checks and who make false financial statements.

SB95 contains a contingency clause that says if it passes along with HB817, and HB817 does not contain an appropriation for the $3.9 million annually for the CoreCivic prison beds in Arizona, it is void.

But since the Finance and Claims Committee appropriated that money through HB817, both bills are moving forward. SB95, sponsored by Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County, passed the Senate 36-14 and is awaiting its third reading in the House. HB817 passed the House 93-2 and its first action in the Senate is in the Finance and Claims Committee.

Supporters of the amendment to add the CoreCivic money into HB817 said Friday the state would need the extra beds because of the additional people who would be jailed or go to prison under the laws amended in SB95.

A fiscal note for SB95 assumes there will be at least 200 more people each year facing jail and prison time under the changes.

Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, asked committee chairman Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, how many people were currently in jail or prison for theft, to which Esp replied: “Not as many as we will have.”

Lynch suggested that the private, for-profit CoreCivic was getting a “backroom deal” with the committee’s decision to add the money back in after taking it out of House Bill 2, the budget bill, earlier this month.

“The department never asked for this, and all of a sudden we’re going to let the Republicans shove this down Montana’s throat,” he told the committee. “We’re celebrating locking up more people and sending them out of state.”

The committee voted 10-9 to both pass the amendment and then pass the bill. On the vote to pass the bill to the Senate floor, Republican Sens. Forrest Mandeville, Kenneth Bogner, and Jeff Welborn joined Democrats in opposing it.

The committee voted 14-5 on April 11 to take the same money out of HB2 that was added into the budget in the House, as proponents said they did not believe they would need the extra prison beds because of community corrections and other beds coming online over the biennium and another bill that would allow some prisoners eligible for parole to go to a prerelease or treatment center within 14 months of their eligibility date.

House lawmakers supporting the money for CoreCivic, which also operates the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, had said they put the money into the budget because they felt moving prisoners to Arizona would be the cheapest and fastest way to get people awaiting transfer from county jails open beds.

The committee also adopted an amendment to HB817 to put $25 million during the coming biennium toward workforce housing for people who work at prisons and behavioral health centers. Lynch offered an amendment to to say it should only apply to state facilities and not the Shelby prison operated by CoreCivic, but the concept died.

Funding for the workforce housing in HB 817 is contingent on House Bill 819 passing.

Democrats have repeatedly criticized the idea of sending prisoners to Arizona, saying it would do nothing to rehabilitate prisoners or reduce recidivism when the prisoners are hundreds of miles away from their homes and families.

The Senate is scheduled to take up House Bill 2 on the floor on Monday after its discussion was pushed from Friday so the Finance and Claims Committee could take action on more bills.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the first name of Sen. Forrest Mandeville.

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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.

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