By PHIL DRAKE
HELENA – Questions about squeezing some money out of the prison system rather than having taxpayers foot the bill were raised Friday during a budget hearing of the state Legislature.
Members of the panel asked about privatizing some services at prisons and how could the state increase restitution payments from prisoners.
State officials told the joint subcommittee on Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice that his department would need $170 million in 2012 and $180 million in 2013 to operate. Montana has about 12,000 people who are wards of the state with 8,000 of those on paroled supervision, officials said.
“Montana is tough on crime,” Budget Director David Ewer said. “We’re very compassionate people but we’re tough.”
Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, asked if privatizing some services had been considered.
Ewer did not offer him much hope.
“We believe it is appropriate for government employees to deliver something as important as public safety,” he said, adding the administration of Gov. Brian Schweitzer was not a proponent for more private prisons in the state nor for shipping prisoners out of Montana to other facilities.
Mike Ferriter, director of the Department of Corrections, said it cost the private-run prison in Shelby $67.86 a day to keep a prisoner whereas Montana state prisons have a cost of $87.91 a day.
But, he added, Montana State Prison was becoming a “special needs prison” that dealt with people who were sex offenders or had medical issues.
During a break in the session, Peterson said privatizing some prison services was something he was interested in, but would not push the issue.
“I thought it would be good for the agency (DOC) to pursue,” he said, adding that the state could privatize the prison ranch in Deer Lodge and send low-level offenders there to work.
Rep. Michael More, R-Gallatin Gateway, suggested the DOC look at ways to make prisoners pay restitution for their own incarceration.