The ACLU of Montana and community members today shared with Members of the Law and Justice Interim Committee about the challenges faced by individuals returning to their communities after being incarcerated or otherwise involved with Montana’s criminal legal system.  The ACLU of Montana and other advocates asked the committee to study ways to improve reentry programs and keep this issue on the table during the 2021 legislative session. 

Successful reentry programs support people who have arrest and conviction records. This support can include eliminating barriers to employment, assisting with safe and affordable housing,  and ensuring access to services for mental health needs and substance use disorders and peer-support programs. 

According to numerous studies (see here and here for two examples), successful reentry programs not only support individuals, but they also lower recidivism rates, which help keep communities safer and contribute to overall public safety.  

“The current lack of reentry programs and support throughout Montana make it nearly impossible for people to successfully reenter their communities. This especially harms those who are poor,” said SK Rossi, Advocacy and Policy Director with the ACLU of Montana. “As a result, too many people are needlessly trapped in Montana’s broken criminal legal system for long stretches of time -- on the taxpayers’ dime -- when they should be home with their families.”

Clemente Arciga, with the organization Welcome Back, spoke about the challenges that he faced as he re-entered his community. 

“Before I was incarcerated, I had a full-time job, I was a full-time father, and I had access to affordable housing,” said Arciga. “I had the things I needed to take care of myself and my family, but that all changed after I spent time at Montana State Prison.  As I tried to re-enter my community, I faced so many barriers:  I could no longer access health insurance, I could not renew my commercial drivers’ license, which was my source of income, and I didn’t have access to affordable and functional housing.  I needed help, and the system failed me, like it does so many others. I matter, and others in the system matter.”

Ann Truesdell, executive director of Montana Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, shared her experience of working with clients who are reentering their communities. 

“In our country, we have an unrealistic expectation that people can just jump back into society,” said Truesdale. “But, people need support. If the state doesn’t ensure that people have access to reentry services, we are forcing people to continue to serve a sentence even after they’ve served their time and have been released.” 

Katie Sorenson, a Missoula community member who gave testimony about her personal experience, spoke to the panel about the need not only for access to affordable housing and employment, but also the importance of accessible mental health and substance use disorder treatment and care. 

“In addition to access to affordable housing and employment, the system needs to prioritize health care - including mental health care and treatment for people who have substance use disorders,” said Sorenson. “If people are supported in their recovery from addiction or while navigating mental health challenges, they are more likely to be successful in returning to their communities.”

The panelists, some of whom are formerly incarcerated, also shared their hope that people who are involved in the criminal legal system are treated with dignity and respect. 

“Supporting people as they re-enter their communities is the sensible, fiscally-responsibly, and just thing to do,” said Rossi. “Stronger reentry programs will help individuals succeed and contribute to safer communities while saving taxpayer dollars. We hope this committee will continue this conversation leading up to and during the 2021 legislative session.”