MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
A Montana corrections advisory panel chaired by Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger on Monday recommended that more than 900 new prison beds and a new sex offender treatment center be built in the state over the next 16 years. The plan, which will be forwarded to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, is meant to accommodate projected increases in the corrections populations through 2025. It calls for a 116-bed treatment center for sex offenders, 152 beds for prisoners with mental or medical health issues, 512 new beds for male inmates and a 256-bed women's prison in the Billings area. The cost of those projects is estimated at $243 million. That would be less than half the new spending recommended by an industry consultant, the South Carolina firm Carter Goble Lee, in a report issued in December. Carter Goble Lee projected an almost 70 percent increase by 2025 in Montana's population of inmates and non-incarcerated offenders. The firm said more than 3,500 new beds would be needed in prisons and lower-security halfway houses and treatment centers. But Bohlinger and others on the Montana Corrections Advisory Council rejected those figures on Monday as "inflated." Bohlinger said the prison population is now growing at its slowest rate in 20 years. "They anticipated something that really doesn't exist," he said of the consultant's report. He added that the administration would continue to emphasize alternatives to prison for most offenders. Instead of putting everyone who breaks the law behind bars, Bohlinger said the administration wants to "help them with their (drug or alcohol) addiction, help them with their mental health issues." But the assumption that prison growth rates would stay low was rejected by another member of the advisory council, state Sen. Jim Shockley. The Victor Republican said it was "wishful" to think the trend would continue in the face of a lagging economy and the Legislature's pursuit of longer prison sentences for criminals. Ben Crooks, the author of the consultant's report, defended his firm's growth projections and said they were based on long-term trends he believed to be accurate. Schweitzer's corrections adviser, Eve Franklin, said the new construction called for by Bohlinger's panel would be weighed against other programs and how much the state can afford. "It's a piece of data the governor will have to look at," Franklin said. She said any requests to the Legislature for new money would have to wait until its next session, in 2011. Others said the trimmed-down number of prison beds recommended by the advisory panel still was too high. The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana said the state should put more emphasis on programs that keep people out of prison. That included decriminalization of nonviolent drug offenses and sentencing reforms that would favor treatment programs over incarceration. But ACLU-Montana policy director Niki Zupanic said the organization supported the proposals for a new sex offender treatment center and prison beds for inmates suffering medical and mental health problems. "The fact that there are less than three dozen beds systemwide for mental and medical health needs was, frankly, shocking to us," Zupanic said.