The Council of State of Governments (CSG) Justice Center today released an analysis of racial equity in the Montana criminal justice system, examining American Indian and White defendants in particular. The findings point to a need to collect additional data and further analyze sentencing placements for felony criminal endangerment and public order convictions. 

“This marks a good first step in analyzing potential racial inequities in the criminal justice system. It is clear we have a lot of work to do with data collection, especially with plea bargains, but Montana judges are making quality sentencing decisions. As a Branch, we take this seriously, and will continue to gather and analyze data to address any racial inequities,” said Chief Justice Mike McGrath.   

The study found that while there are no observed differences in the length of incarceration sentences ordered by a judge, there are differences in when a person is sentenced to incarceration via the Department of Corrections (DOC) for felony criminal endangerment and felony public order offenses. Examples of public order offenses include failure to register as sexual or violent offender, bail jumping, or escape. Judges may sentence directly to a DOC facility or give the DOC authority to decide on the best placement. 

Sentencing decisions for felony property crimes, sexual and violent crimes, drug crimes, and DUI convictions were racially neutral according to the study. Felony drug crimes remain the largest single category resulting in a DOC placement. 

The CSG Justice Center also recommended that the Judicial Branch and the Department of Corrections partner with county attorneys to ensure plea bargains are free of bias and provide additional training to judges and DOC staff about racial equity. 

Montana judges participated in training in May about avoiding racial biases in sentencing decisions.