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A Senate committee on Tuesday voted to scrap plans to send 120 incarcerated Montanans to a private prison in Arizona. 

The amendment to the Legislature’s main spending proposal from Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, removed almost $8 million in funding over the next biennium for the state Department of Corrections to secure bed space from private prison giant CoreCivic at one of its Arizona facilities. CoreCivic has a current contract with the state to operate the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby.

Boldman and supporters of her amendment on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee said the state can alleviate crowding in the prison system without having to contract with CoreCivic, pointing to a series of measures lawmakers are considering this session to increase bed space both in community corrections — programs like pre-release centers that house people on probation or parole — and at the state prison in Deer Lodge. 

“We know we’re freeing up a significant amount of beds — easily 100-plus — and I don’t think we need these beds in Arizona,” Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, told the committee Tuesday.

The $8 million appropriation was put into House Bill 2 last month through an amendment from Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, who presented it as a temporary but immediate solution to capacity issues in the prison system. More than 250 people are held in county jails in Montana awaiting placement in either the state prison or a community correctional facility due to the lack of available bed space, according to the Montana Department of Corrections. 

But Fitzpatrick’s amendment was controversial with critics pointing to CoreCivic’s marbled reputation and arguing that separating inmates from their home state and communities would increase recidivism.

Although it had the support of Billings Republican Rep. Bill Mercer, the chair of the budget subcommittee focused on corrections and other aspects of the criminal legal system, the state Department of Corrections distanced itself from the idea. When Mercer floated the idea of sending Montana inmates to Arizona at a subcommittee meeting in February, DOC director Brian Gootkin said the department preferred to first look at in-state solutions. Nevertheless, Mercer and Fitzpatrick pushed for the idea and got the votes to attach the funding to the budget in the House Appropriations Committee last month — a somewhat irregular move, as the budget subcommittee in charge of DOC funding hadn’t voted to approve the money. 

HB 2 then passed the House and landed in the Senate, giving the upper chamber the opportunity to amend the House’s work. 

There are several other options for adding bed space in Montana, Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, who sits on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee and was opposed to the CoreCivic arrangement, told Capitolized Tuesday. HB 2 already has funding for 51 community corrections beds. And Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billingshas a bill awaiting signature by the governor that would allow the DOC to send inmates to pre-release centers more quickly, Lynch said. Additionally, the Legislature’s long-range infrastructure funding vehicle, House Bill 5, has money for a variety of projects designed to increase bed space, including renovations at the state prison. 

“All those pieces in tandem are enough for [Corrections] to be able to manage this,” Lynch said. 

McGillvray said Tuesday he spoke with the governor’s budget office and was assured that if the state really did need the CoreCivic beds, the Corrections Department could ask for the money back through a supplemental appropriations bill. Boldman’s amendment ultimately passed, 14-5. The Senate can also further amend HB 2 on the floor.

Senate Finance and Claims Committee Chair John Esp, R-Big Timber, was among the “no” votes, arguing that the Legislature would just end up approving the funding anyway. 

“I don’t want to do something when we know it’s going to cause a supplemental,” he said.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.