Lawmakers will study prisoner solitary confinement and meth and opioid abuse during the legislative interim as they begin to shape new policy proposals for the 2019 session.
The Law and Justice Interim Committee met for the first time Wednesday, to elect their leaders and outline their work priorities.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers requested 20 studies be conducted over the interim to inform future policy. The law and justice committee will work on two of them: solitary confinement and drug abuse.
The committee’s study on drug abuse will include information provided by a new initiative by the Montana Department of Justice and the Montana Healthcare Foundation. It kicked off in April.
Eric Sell with the DOJ gave the committee a quick presentation on the scope of the issue facing the state.
“Since 1980 the drug offense rate in the state has increased 559 percent," says Sell. "Methamphetamine alone, methamphetamine violations are up over 500 percent in just the last five years.”
When the study request was created, lawmakers raised concern about an increase in meth leading to burdened law enforcement, district courts, prisons and the foster care system.
The second study the committee will oversee will deal with solitary confinement. According to legislative staff research, in each of the past three sessions, lawmakers have considered legislation to change the state’s use of solitary confinement, in some cases removing the practices for state and county institutions.
Beth Brenneman, with Disability Rights Montana, testified during the committee’s meeting Wednesday in encouragement of that study.
“Often people will get far worse in solitary confinement," Brenneman says. "Which is not a surprise, for many, many years we’ve known how deleterious the effects are of solitary confinement on people with mental illness. Now we understand that is very deleterious for juveniles and pregnant women.”
A member of the interim committee also pointed out during the hearing that solitary confinement is also at times used for an inmate's protection.
Lawmakers will continue planning their studies of solitary confinement and opioid and meth abuse in the coming months, and will draft proposals to change state law before the next legislative session.