Criminal Justice Reform Still Uphill Battle

by William Skink

Yesterday it was reported as BREAKING NEWS that Cynthia Wolken got a new job with the Department of Corrections. The Montana Post framed this as a huge winfor criminal justice reform. My question: is it really?

Those with a longer attention span than the last news cycle might remember how tens of thousands of dollars were spent studying jail overcrowding in Missoula, only to have Mayor Engen balk at funding the recommendations. When the budget was being worked out last July it became clear jail diversion programs were not a priority for the Mayor:

However, the budget does not include the $82,000 requested by Parks and Recreation to cover the maintenance of several new greenways, including the Missoula Art Park and the pedestrian crossing at South Reserve Street.

Nor does it include $650,000 to fund the city’s Jail Diversion Master Plan. Among other things, the initiative seeks funding for a number of programs, including $38,000 for alcohol and drug monitoring, $62,000 for anger management and $17,000 for home arrest.

The latter effort would reduce the jail’s population by one inmate per day, according to Missoula Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks.

“They can keep their jobs and they can take care of their kids,” Jenks said. “They can continue with medical plans and prescriptions. Those all get disrupted when you go to jail.”

The court and several City Council members plan to meet over the next week to discuss the proposal further and work to prioritize programs within the plan. And while the city may not fund the program this year, it could look at doing so next year, or approaching it in pieces.

So, if “progressive” Missoula didn’t make dealing with jail overcrowding a priority after one of its own politicians spent so much time (and money) studying the problem, what is Wolken going to be able to accomplish as Deputy Director of the DoC?

Despite the victories Wolken can point to at the State level with legislation she got signed into law, any gains being made are going to be wiped out thanks to the budget cuts. Slashing behavioral health services, like case management, will have many ripple effects, and one of those ripples will be increased numbers of people ending up in jail because their support system has been destroyed.

Putting competent people in higher positions of authority is not a bad thing, but I’m skeptical of what can actually be accomplished if our political leadership doesn’t make reform a priority. Making these high profile hires seems more like creating good optics that something is being done with difficult issues. I had a similar suspicion when Mayor Engen selected the former director of the Poverello Center to head up his new Housing Initiative ahead of his reelection campaign.

I hope Cynthia Wolken will continue to be effective in pushing for reform in the criminal justice system. I hope being a six-figure-salaried member of the system she is trying to reform doesn’t hamper those efforts. And if the Governor and other elected officials don’t follow up their lip services with substantive action, like Mayor Engen failed to do, I hope the Deputy Director of Montana’s DoC makes some noise.

My concern is a generous salary will provide a strong incentive to do the opposite.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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3 Responses to Criminal Justice Reform Still Uphill Battle

  1. dennis flagen says:

    We must remember also all those cuts to state agencies are now permanent,so don’t look for any new money in the 2019 legislature for these reforms. The GOP will make more gains no doubt in both houses as the democrat party will have no interest in funding and campaigning for good candidates as all their money and focus will be on re-electing Jon Tester to U.S.Senate. Which of course leaves democrat party with no future bench to run for upper level state offices. Wolken has some great ideas but get real she is the second in command.

  2. I love DOC”s #1

    Michael, who was recruited by Senator Blasdel’s roommate from Billings said the words ‘Restorative Justice’ in context when he was first introduced to the Senate last year. Too tired to find the link now, but it was awesome.

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