September 10, 2018

Set Up to Fail: Montana's Probation & Parole System -- read the report here!


In Montana, hundreds of people—462 people in 2017—are incarcerated each year for technical or compliance violations of probation or parole. State research demonstrates that most of these individuals are returning to custody not because they’ve committed a new crime, but because they broke a rule of their supervision.

Indigenous people, already significantly overrepresented in the Montana prison system, are also more likely to return to prison for a technical violation. Between 2010 and 2017, 961 Native Americans were incarcerated as a result of a probation violation, 81% of whom were placed in custody for a compliance or technical violation of their probation— not for a new crime. Comparatively, white people were 5% less likely to return to prison for a compliance or technical violation.

In the last year, Montana has made important legislative changes to address the procedural reasons that lead individuals into state custody for technical or compliance violations. However, in the absence of meaningful reentry and community rehabilitative services, it is likely that people will continue to incur supervision violations and enter or reenter state custody as a result of those violations or related new crimes.

ACLU research, conducted between November 2017 and March 2018, suggests that the primary reason for which people are unsuccessful on community supervision is a combination of unmet treatment needs (for substance abuse and mental health in particular) and unmanageable costs associated with supervision requirements. Instead of being an alternative to custody, community supervision (probation and parole) in Montana is actually a significant feeder of incarceration.

probation and parole

Against All Odds: Melissa's Story of Success in Spite of the Criminal Justice System

Read the story of Melissa Smylie: a mother, former AmeriCorps member, student, and community advocate. She had to overcome incredible odds to escape the criminal justice system. “I have reclaimed my life, but re-entry into life after being convicted and incarcerated was hard. The barriers the probation system created made recovery nearly impossible. I was successful because I found ways to get active, volunteer, and be of service to others. I filled my days with this, so that I wouldn’t be thinking about giving up…."

Why Are So Many Indigenous People in Montana Incarcerated?

Indigenous people have suffered several centuries of injustice at the hands of the United States government. In Montana, the injustices continue, particularly when it comes to the scourge of mass incarceration. Read more from our research team here.

ACLU of Montana Recommendations for the State of Montana

  1. Develop holistic defender services that can provide assistance and support to people on supervision to find housing, treatment, transportation, and required or otherwise appropriate programming;
  2. Provide community mental health and substance abuse treatment—particularly in rural areas— to ensure that people on supervision can be successful upon reentry and have continuity of care upon release from custody;
  3. Develop achievable goals that recognize the reality of dealing with poverty and environmental circum­stances;
  4. Allow and encourage probation offices to reduce probation terms and to reduce in-person check-ins where appropriate;
  5. Recruit Indigenous staff in probation, parole, and other public service positions (including for treatment and diagnosis of mental health and substance abuse) to work with Indigenous people on supervision; and
  6. Accept and support traditional tribal programs and traditions as part of the rehabilitative process.

Get Involved

Are you currently or have you been on probation or parole? If so, we would love to connect and share your story! Contact us at

Do you want to help us push for reform in the probation and parole system? Fill out the Volunteer Form.

Are you a state legislator who wants to reduce the harmful impacts of probation and parole for Montanans? Contact SK Rossi, Director of Advocacy and Policy.