Three GF Tribune stories about taxes & legislature
Corrections request can be seen as investment
A big change is under way in Montana's prison system, but it's going to take time and, for a while at least, more money.
The change is an increasing emphasis on treating and rehabilitating people convicted of crimes.
The change doesn't account for the double-digit increase in the Corrections Department's budget proposal that will go before the Legislature starting next week — not even close.
But it is an important component of the increase, one that should be viewed more as an investment than an expense.
That's because the aim of treatment and rehab is to reduce the incidence of repeat offending, called recidivism.
It's no surprise that many prison inmates have serious mental issues, including addiction problems. Prisons have treatment programs, but they've never been adequate.
Furthermore, as the use of illegal methamphetamines reached epidemic proportions, there's been a parallel explosion in the population of inmates, many if not most of them with addictions.
What corrections experts have found is that simply locking these people up doesn't work in the long run, for the individuals or for society: They're highly likely to re-offend.
The result is that we've been warehousing a growing percentage of the state's population with no real hope of breaking the cycle. In fact a sizable chunk of the Corrections Department's $97 million budget increase is to cope with 609 unbudgeted offenders in the system.
The spread of treatment courts and the construction of two new state treatment facilities, along with Corrections' request to beef up community-based facilities and programs, provide hope that the cycle of recidivism will be broken.
If that happens, prison populations eventually should decline. Fiscally that's a double winner: First because treatment and rehab are much cheaper than imprisonment; and second because they are more effective. Participants in treatment programs are less likely to return to prison — as long as support for them is adequate.
During the transition, while both systems are in operation, it will cost more, and that's reflected in the Corrections budget request.
In a way, the Corrections proposal is a good fit for the state's current budget surplus, because the treatment programs' costs should be more than offset — over time — by lower overall costs in the prison system.
It's time for Montana to treat people who have been debits in the ledger books of life and turn them back into credits.
COMMENT by Paul Stephens
What happened to the Montana Meth Project? It was supposed to solve all our problems. Instead, it encouraged more young people to try a drug, and to ignore or react against authority. A Seattle P-I commentary explained why:
"The Montana Meth Project has been running over-the-top anti-meth ads for more than a year. One ad told teens if they use methamphetamine they will pick out their eyebrows until they bleed. Others claimed using meth "just once" leads to addiction, prostitution and death. Not surprising, the project's internal evaluations found the campaign ineffective.
In contrast, the anti-smoking "Truth" campaign has been highly successful. The ads don't talk down to teens or even tell them not to smoke. They basically say smoke if you want to, but it's stupid. And you'll have bad breath. And you won't to be able to run without gasping for breath. That's effective. Cornell University's anti-binge-drinking "smart woman" campaign is also promising. It avoids paternalistic messages not to drink and teaches students how to use good judgment and avoid high-risk drinking behavior."
Unless you want to claim that Americans are more criminal than any other "free" people in the world, four-fifths of the people in our prisons shouldn't be there. This is because the U.S. imprisons five times as many people per capita as the rest of the world. We have 5% of the world's population, and 25% of the prisoners. It's entirely driven by the Prison Lobby and industry, plus the courts, legislature, and other bodies whose livelihoods depend on prosecuting, incarcerating, and "rehabilitating" large numbers of people.
My representative, John Parker, is carrying a bill for his boss, the county attorney, which will lock up more people for simply possessing "pornography" -- in this case, scantily-clad children under 18 -- "statuatory child porn," as it were. And they don't even have to show frontal nudity, apparently. What kind of "law" is this? We would call it "a Police State" and Gulags or Concentration Camps if they existed in a Communist country.
Most of the "sex offenders" are in prison for statuatory rape. And "pedophiles" are often convicted on the basis of "repressed memories" conjured up by hypnotists and counselors decades after the fact. God forbid a concerned adult should ever give a teenager any "hands on sex education." Far better to let them be seduced by drug dealers or drinking-age migrant workers who can't afford the price of a brothel -- oh, I forgot. They're illegal, too, with a $10,000 fine for "soliciting."
Girls develop earlier than boys, and their older boyfriends are sent to prison, and stigmatized as "sex offenders" for the rest of their lives. Thousands of them, in Montana, alone.
The drug laws are promoted by the alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical industries to protect their monopolies. How can a home-grown plant or home-made product be illegal? People use drugs. Sometimes, it causes problems for them. Why spend taxpayer's money punishing them further for something they chose to do? Prohibition is responsible for the vast criminal drug trade. "When drugs are outlawed, only outlaws will have drugs." The NRA could have told you that.
Check out a story called "Corrections, Inc." from American Radio Works. Here's the link:
And ask your representatives if they've received any "free seminars" from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Here's a link to a group which monitors them:
We need to be planning to halve the present prison population within five years, not hoping it will rise by 6% a year over the next two years! We need statewide public transportation systems and universal health care, living wages and rebuilding a coal-free energy infrastructure, not more prisons. Plus free tuition and a stipend for everyone who wants more education, and does their homework. That's more than the governor and most legislators have done.
Paul Stephens, Montana Green Bulletin greateco@3rivers. net
Article published Dec 25, 2006
Legislature 2007: State seeks $97 million increase for corrections
By CHELSI MOY
Tribune Staff Writer
The state is asking taxpayers to fork over an additional $97 million to keep convicted felons in treatment, out of trouble or behind bars.
A 38 percent jump from two years ago in the Department of Correction's budget is one of the largest proposed budget increases heading into the 2007 legislative session.
Part of the reason is because of a $27 million shortfall in the 2007 fiscal year. There are 609 more offenders in the corrections system than was budgeted for, said corrections Spokesman Bob Anez.
These days, the agency is emphasizing treatment and rehabilitation instead of a lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach — a philosophy supported by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and aimed at preventing crimes while cutting down on costs.
Just over half of the correction's $349.8 million budget is slated for community-based corrections such as adding pre-release beds, probation and parole officers and chemical dependency counselors. But start-up costs are pricey.
While the agency's primary concern this session is securing adequate funding to runs its programs, a number of lawmakers have introduced public safety legislation to fund the increasingly popular drug courts, strengthen sex offender laws and broaden the definition of child pornography.
Police are doing a better job at catching criminals, judges are handing out heftier sentences and the Legislature has a tendency to increase penalties over time, said Rep. Tim Callahan, D-Great Falls.
All considered, the Department of Corrections is managing a heftier caseload. Officials estimate Montana's inmate population will see an annual 6 percent growth over the next biennium.
In 2005, lawmakers increased the state correction's budget by 16 percent, adding an additional $35 million to the pot. That, however, was less than the agency requested and now state officials are back asking for the rest.
A large portion of the governor's proposed correction's budget — approximately 46 percent — still directs money towards secure facilities, but the state is slowly moving away from routinely locking up offenders.
Of the total $160.1 million proposed for the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and Montana Women's Prison in Billings, $21.5 million is slated for expanding the number of prison beds and $2.4 million to cover overtime costs.
"We don't have (prison) beds for everybody," said Callahan. "We haven't added a significant number of secure beds for awhile."
Statistics show it costs approximately $70 a day to house prison inmates and only $3.75 per day for offenders on probation.
Of the total $349.8 million proposed corrections budget, $106.6 million — or one out of every three dollars — is directed toward community-based correctional programs.
About $10.6 million in the next biennium will pay for 120 beds in the two new methamphetamine treatment facilities located in Lewistown and Boulder. Construction is underway on Lewistown's 80-bed men's facility, which is scheduled to open June 1.
"We are on target," said Mike Thatcher, head of Community Counseling and Correctional Services, Inc., which will run the treatment facility.
Staff training will take place in mid-May. It will cost $117 a day to operate the facility, Thatcher said.
In addition, the state is asking lawmakers to hire 36 additional probation and parole officers, at a cost of $3.2 million. An average adult probation and parole officer monitors 80 — 100 offenders at a time, said Callahan, who works as a juvenile probation and parole officer.
The state took control of transporting inmates in July following five escapes in the last two years using contracted agencies. Nine transportation officers will cost the state about $993,000 over two years.
Cascade County Sheriff David Castle expects to spend a significant amount of time in Helena advocating for tougher seatbelt laws, urging lawmakers to maintain funding for search and rescue at its current level and to help volunteer firefighters get compensated for responding to fires on state and federal land.
All of these issues will be in addition to Castle's unwavering interest in convincing the state to increase the per diem at Montana's three regional jails, which house state inmates.
Chairman of the Law and Justice Interim Committee Rep. John Parker, D-Great Falls, proposed toughening child pornography laws to include nearly all pictures of half-exposed children used for arousal purposes. The bill is at the request of County Attorney Brant Light, he said.
Parker also submitted a bill to keep inmates from profiting off their crimes. The proposed legislation is in response to convicted sex offender Nathan Bar-Jonah, who put his shoes, hair and a prison towel up for sale on an Internet auction site.
Lawmakers suspect the topic of sex offenders will draw a lot of attention this session. Sex offenders are a serious public concern and a drain on the corrections budget, Callahan said.
"There is a misconception about the various levels of sex offenders," he said. "Everyone thinks all of them are pedophiles, but only a very small percent actually are. The community looks at them all the same, but when you look at needs and costs, there is a great difference."
The U.S. imprisons five times as many people per capita as the rest of the world. We have 5% of the world's population, and 25% of the prisoners. Only Russia, China, and Cuba come close. We imprison more people for drug use than the EU, with a larger population, imprisons for all crimes. We also have a much higher imprisonment rate for "sex offenders". Montana is approximately equal to the rest of the country in all these statistics, except that Native Americans are the minority imprisoned, rather than Blacks or Hispanics -- far disproportionately to their percentage of the population.
What's wrong with this picture? It's entirely driven by the Prison Lobby and industry, plus the courts, legislature, and other bodies whose livelihoods depend on enslaving large numbers of people. This is what we would call "Gulags" or "a Police State" if it existed in a Communist country. Why do we want or need one, here?
Years ago, most prisoners in Deer Lodge were there either for statuatory rape or bad checks. But it was only a few hundred people in those days. Most girls are sexually active by the age of 15, but if a male who is more than two years older has sex with her, he is designated a "sexual offender," and forced to live under that stigma even after he gets out of prison or off parole. This is an absurd throwback to a puritanical, anti-sex mentality of "abstinence" and virginity until marriage. How did this become the law of Montana? And why do the rest of us have to pay for it?
The drug laws are just as absurd. People use drugs. Sometimes, it causes problems for them. Why spend taxpayer's money punishing them for something they chose to do?
Check out a story called "Corrections, Inc." from American Radio Works. Here's the link:
And ask your representatives if they've received any "free seminars" from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Here's a link to a group which monitors them: http://alecwatch.org/
We need to be planning to halve the present prison population within five years, not hoping it will rise by 6% a year over the next two years!
Paul Stephens, Montana Green Bulletin greateco@3rivers. net
Article published Dec 26, 2006
Taxes a key issue in '07
By GWEN FLORIO
Tribune Capitol Bureau
HELENA — In this season of generosity, Democrats and Republicans both agree that among the gifts they'll bring to Montanans in the 2007 legislative session are lower taxes, especially property taxes.
"Property taxes are important because people are feeling they're too high, and rightly so," said Sen. Jim Elliott, D-Trout Creek, who chairs the Senate Taxation Committee.
"I'd like to see some meaningful permanent property tax relief," said House Speaker Scott Sales, a Bozeman Republican. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also are taking aim at the business equipment tax.
But how to accomplish those goals — well, that's pretty much where the bipartisan fa-la-la ends.
Long before the November election that led to a narrowly divided Legislature, Republicans and Democrats already were covetously eyeing the state's expected surplus of nearly $1 billion.
Tax cuts topped each party's wish list.
Republicans vowed to return part of any surplus to taxpayers, and to permanently cut property taxes by a minimum of 8 percent. The Democrats' plan, unveiled by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, would give Montana homeowners a one-time $400 rebate.
The wrangling over the two plans "is going to be the great debate," said state Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, who is also on the Senate Taxation Committee.
"I think that the Legislature will have a lot of sympathy for a long-term solution rather than a one-time plan. And this way, everybody gets a reduction in taxes. The governor's plan does not include any businesses," Black said.
In the 2005 session, legislators could debate all they wanted, but in the end, even with the House tied — Democrats held a slim majority in the Senate — Democrats could prevail with Schweitzer's tie-breaking vote.
Things are different this time, with the 26-24 Democratic majority in the Senate, and a House with a Republicans holding a 50-49 advantage, with Constitution Party candidate Rick Jore vowing to vote with Republicans on most issues.
The difference on property taxes illustrates the fundamental philosophical split between the two parties: Republicans say they want as much of the state's surplus as possible back in the hands of taxpayers, figuring they'll spend or invest it, thus strengthening the economy in the process.
"The more taxes you leave in people's pockets, the stronger the economy is going to go, and we're generally going to get more revenue," said Rep. Bob Lake, R-Hamilton, chairman of the House Taxation Committee.
Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton of Billings stressed the permanent nature of the GOP plan.
Elliott said that Republicans "are only doing what they think is right; however, I happen to think it's counterproductive. ... The 8 percent solution is complicated at best and extremely unfair at worst."
Back when Republicans unveiled their "Handshake With Montana," Schweitzer criticized it for giving more money back to owners of the most expensive homes.
Also, Elliott questioned the theory that people take their tax savings and spread the money around the state.
"What would it do for the Montana economy? We don't know," he said. "We'll never know. Was the money invested in the stock market out of state?"
Not all Democrats are solidly behind their party's plan. Sen. Joe Tropila, D-Great Falls, said the $400 rebate leaves out "the poor renters. They don't get a thing. That has to be looked at very carefully."
Democrats also want to use some of the surplus to shore up programs, such as corrections and mental health, that they say have been long neglected. Schweitzer outlined other one-time deals, such as putting $100 million into the state's ailing pension system. Finally, he insisted that about $80 million needs to be saved in a "rainy-day fund" for emergencies.
Republicans scoff at those ideas.
Schweitzer's proposals would require spending 22 percent more than the two-year general-fund spending approved in 2005. Sales says that's far too much.
An 8 percent increase over the next two years would be more realistic, he said.
Republicans and Democrats also differ significantly in how they want to change the business-equipment tax, something that became a point of contention in this year's campaigns. The exemption was increased to $20,000 during the 2005 legislative session, eliminating the tax for about 13,000 small business. But the Legislature also got rid of a "trigger" that would have eliminated the tax entirely. That affected about 16,000 small businesses, and Republicans took to portraying the effect as a tax hike for those firms.
Republicans will try again in 2007 to get rid of the tax.
"I'd like to see it gone altogether," said Lake.
"I'm not sure that's a responsible thing to do," responded Senate President Mike Cooney of Helena. "What we have to look at is sustainability and fairness." After all, he said, "We have to pay for infrastructure. ... I think we have a good business climate in Montana and we don't have to give away the farm to attract it."
For all the differences between the two parties, Lake said that, in the end, there probably won't be huge changes.
"I would say one of the biggest challenges this time is not to change the taxing structure significantly so we don't lose the momentum we have in our economy," he said.
According to [the previous] issue of the Tribune, the prison system claims to need another $97 million. Unless legislators read my comment to that story, and follow up the links, they'll probably get it. The Pension Fund is getting another $100 million, which probably isn't even enough to keep up. Does everyone in Montana have adequate medical care? How about dental care? Surely these are more important than more prisons, or even the solvency of the pension system at a level far above what most of us live on.
How about college and VoTech tuition? Can everyone afford it? Is everyone going to school who wants to? I don't think so.
How about public transportation? Can everyone in the larger cities do without a private automobile? How about bus or train service between every city and town on a paved highway? What would that cost? Would $97 million be sufficient? Surely that's a better use than spending it to lock people up. The state spends $10,000/year per student at MSU or UM on average, but close to $30,000/inmate in prison or treatment facilities. Which is the better choice and value -- especially since 4/5 of those in prison or treatment don't need to be there? AA, NA, and the like cost nothing, and they are the only treatment models which are proven to be effective.
Before we start talking about tax cuts and rebates, let's discuss our public needs, and how our tax dollars are being spent, now. Obviously, we're funding a lot of things that shouldn't be funded, and ignoring some of our most pressing human needs. Nothing new, but now would seem to be a good time to change.
Paul Stephens firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor, Montana Green Bulletin