Lawmakers request study of Montana prisoner disparities

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HELENA, Mont. - A disproportionate number of American Indians are enmeshed
in the Montana justice system, and state Rep. Carol Juneau wants to know
why.

The Browning Democrat is calling on the Legislature to conduct an interim
study on state court sentencing practices and other factors to pinpoint the
reasons behind the high numbers.

At a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Juneau said that while
she believes inequities exist, "perhaps we'll find out that the system is
fair."

Data compiled in the 2000 U.S. Census showed there were 56,068 Indians
living in the state, or about 6.2 percent of the total population. Of that
number, 36,459, or about 4 percent of the total state Indian and non-Indian
population, lived on reservations and 19,609, or about 2 percent of the
total population, lived off-reservation.

Indians in Montana's state justice system are usually there because the
crimes with which they're charged took place outside reservations.

The primary exception to that is the Flathead Reservation, where the
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have a shared-jurisdiction
agreement with the state under federal Public Law 280. On the state's six
other reservations, the federal government retains jurisdiction over most
serious crimes, and the subsequent punishment of those offenders is
typically in the federal system.

Overall, Juneau told the committee, the latest figures show Indians make up
14.7 percent of the total offenders in the state-run system. More
specifically, they currently comprise 22.8 percent of the inmate population
at the Montana Women's Prison in Billings, 16.7 percent of the inmate
population at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, and 22 percent of the
inmate population at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.

When it comes to juveniles, Indians make up about 13 percent of arrests and
nearly 17 percent of cases involving secure detention across the state,
Juneau said. The Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City,
which serves boys, has about 20 percent Indian residents while the
Riverside Youth Correctional Facility in Boulder, which serves girls,
currently has about 50 percent Indian residents.

"We need to find out what is happening to create this," Juneau said. "There
is something wrong. There is inequity."

House Joint Resolution 15 envisions that the proposed study will include
specific recommendations "to alleviate any disparate treatment of
minorities" if that conclusion is reached. If the study takes place, its
findings will be presented to the 2007 Legislature.

Juneau's proposal drew supportive testimony from James Mason, who serves as
the American Indian liaison for the state Department of Corrections; Rep.
Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer; Sen. Frank Smith, D-Poplar; Steve Gibson, the
Corrections Department's Youth Services administrator; and Montana
Assistant Attorney General Pam Bucy.

"This is an important step in figuring out what's happening out there,"
Bucy said.

The full House on March 4 approved the proposed study by a 56 - 42 margin.
It will now be considered by the Senate.