Culture Education Montana Politics

Updated: Criminal Justice Reform: Jay-Z, Cynthia Wolken and the future of Montana

The criminal justice system was the centerpiece of an editorial that Jay-Z wrote for the New York Times Friday.

You can read it here: Jay-Z on Meek Mill 

Meek Mill was sentenced to serve 2-4 years for a probation violation for a crime that he committed when he was 19. Meek Mill is now 30 years old and as Jay-Z states:

For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside.

What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day. I saw this up close when I was growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and 1980s.

Jay-Z spoke in Dallas about Meek Mill:

Inequitable treatment of people of color in our criminal justice system is something that America has chosen to ignore for far too long and here in Montana the statistics show the inequity of treatment and confinement as well. 17% of the population of the Montana State Prison system are Native American. Montana is currently 6.32% Native American according to the 2010 census.

Jay-Z continues

The specifics of Meek’s case inspired me to write this. But it’s time we highlight the random ways people trapped in the criminal justice system are punished every day. The system treats them as a danger to society, consistently monitors and follows them for any minor infraction — with the goal of putting them back in prison.

It is this system that Jay-Z describes that never lets an offender out. I have spoken to many friends who are attorneys and they are continually flabbergasted by the amount of money the companies that are in charge of monitoring make and how complicated and expensive it is for their clients to maintain a legal status and how easy it is to fail and fall back.

Luckily here in Montana we are working on criminal justice reform. The effort was spearheaded by State Senator Cynthia Wolken in the last legislative session and actually passed. She had spoke about the successful passge of these bills.

Carrying these bills has been the greatest privilege of my legislative career.

One bill I am most proud of is SJ 3, which will bring to bear all of our state resources to study the disproportionate incarceration of native americans. The whereas clauses are particularly telling of a cycle of intrapment of natives.

We need to change the system to be more vested in helping people succeed rather than catch them when the fail.

This was not just one law either, it was a package of laws and it is true reform.

SB 65 provides funding for housing for felons so that they can safely re-enter communities and start rebuilding their lives.

SB 62 provides for peer support licensing so that we can help people stay healthy in their communities and get the support they need with any behavioral health issue.

SB 64 modernizes the board of pardons and parole.

HB 133 addresses disparities in the length of some of our criminal sentences.

Other bills address pre-trial supervision services and probation reforms so we can preserve limited jail beds for people who need to be there for our safety.

SB 67 strengthens batterer intervention programming to hold offenders accountable and reduce domestic violence, especially in rural communities.

The laws pushed some progressive reforms, such as this one: If you get caught for the first time with a marijuana joint, you get no jail time at all anywhere in Montana. via The Montana Standard

It is being hailed as a money saving and humane set of policies that will help reduce recidivism and reintegrate offenders back into society.

The Missoulian wrote: Group: Millions in criminal justice costs could be averted as soon as 2018


An analysis of Montana’s system revealed that without action, the state’s prison population was projected to increase 14 percent by 2023. This growth would have required spending tens of millions of dollars to cover the cost of additional contract beds and up to hundreds of millions of dollars to construct and operate new prison facilities. Total spending on corrections has already increased by 16 percent since 2008 and now tops $180 million annually.

Under the new policies, Montana will avoid spending an additional $69 million over the next six years to increase prison capacity.

Senator Wolken states:

The idea is to get people the behavioral health or other help they need early on so they do not continue to cycle through the criminal justice system.  It is also about reducing recidivism and making sure offenders are successful on community supervision.  The three main pressures are rising jail populations, the growing impact of substance abuse, and the increased number of people who are revoked to prison for violating conditions of their release.

Together, these bills represent the most comprehensive change to our justice system in Montana in decades.  Finally, there will be quality assurance mechanisms in place to ensure accountability and measure outcomes for Justice Reinvestment.

It is for these reasons that I have seen growing support for State Senator Cynthia Wolken amongst her colleagues, her constituents as well as Montanans as a whole.

During the recent special session, I noticed this post on Facebook:


Perhaps someday we may see Cynthia Wolken as Montana’s second female governor. Her record on criminal justice reform is a great start.

You can find Senator Wolken on Facebook here: Cynthia Wolken for Montana





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