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Montana Investigates Cause of Disparity in Native American Incarceration Rates

Missoula County Jail
photo by Lorna Wall

The 65th legislative session may be over, but work is already underway for the next biennium. Missoula-area senator Cynthia Wolken says one of the big problems she is working to address is disparity in Montana’s criminal justice system.

“Native Americans are over-represented in our jails and in our prisons… state prison numbers, the percentage of people incarcerated there, who are Native American is something like at least twice what the actual population is… when they are put on probation they are more likely to be revoked, same with parole. They are more likely to wait longer to be paroled.”

The big question behind the disparity is ‘why.’ During the interim, Wolken and other legislators are looking at alternative models used in states like South Dakota to find answers. A new “holistic defense” approach to public defender offices is also under consideration. Wolken explains that model.

“Right now, we just have a very over-worked system and to have someone stop and say ‘your job is to get that person into an outpatient treatment or to get that person connected back with their family,’ the types of things we know take time now, but will save taxpayers and communities from that person going further into the justice system or committing a violent crime.”

The “holistic defense” model is being tested by the Confederated Salish and Kooteni Tribes right now. Wolken says other culturally tailored rehab and counseling programs are also under consideration.

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