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From the Bench: Realities of Reducing Recidivism

by Hon. Virginia Seigel, Havre City Judge

She looked terrible when I saw her sitting across the table from me in the Hill County Detention Center courtroom. She was clearly starting to feel the effects of meth withdrawal and I was not surprised when she plead guilty to the misdemeanor theft charge and gave an explanation for her theft as needing money for her next fix. She said she had been stealing all over town as part of her “meth binge.”

In that moment, I knew why legislators had empowered the judiciary to impose the harsh penalty of up to six months in jail for the crime of petty theft. After hearing her testimony, it was with great deliberation that I imposed the maximum jail time in this instance and included the possibility of release to an inpatient program with credit for time served in a treatment facility, thus invoking Montana Code Annotated 46-18-202 : “The sentencing judge may also impose any of the following restrictions or conditions on the sentence provided for in 46-18-201 that the judge considers necessary to obtain the objectives of rehabilitation and the protection of the victim and society.”

I remember the surprised looks I got from others for imposing the maximum jail sentence for petty theft. Then the other charges of theft came trickling in. Her testimony proved true. She had been purse snatching at Walmart and taking anything and everything she could to stay high. She eventually signed a plea agreement on all the remaining charges and was scheduled to be transferred to a treatment facility.

Well, that might seem like a judicial success story, but crime costs, and it costs everyone.

“Crime costs, and it costs everyone”

In this case, the cost was not only to the victims of her crimes, but also included the cost of housing a drug addict at the Detention Center until treatment could be coordinated through family members or concerned citizens in the community. Without external support, misdemeanor crimes don’t have state resources to fund drug abuse or mental health treatment and therefore defendants have very little ability to get help other than spending time in jail to afford them a depravation period from drugs and alcohol. This depravation period is often quite helpful. I have received many thank you letters from defendants stating how their time spent in jail truly helped them by depriving them of access to the drugs and alcohol that were highjacking their lives.

The Hi-Line is a microcosm of the problems faced in any big city. The struggle with the fallout of the poverty mindset and the impact of drug and alcohol abuse is seen on a daily basis through the halls of justice in Hill County courts. There are two courts of limited jurisdiction: Havre City Court and Hill County Justice Court of Record. These two courts primarily handle misdemeanor criminal cases while felony jurisdiction lies with the 12th Judicial District Court.

“The Hi-Line is a microcosm of the problems faced in any big city”

The struggle for the balance between resources to rehabilitate, the possibility of punishment for deliberate wrongdoing and the cost of crime to the community is the court’s burden. There is no one right recipe for all people. We hand down our judgments with the complexity of human nature always in the foreground.



  1. Gina Schaff

    Great article… every person is different and will get better or not depending on their mind set! Incarceration has helped many get off the drugs in a safe place and then they can go on and get treatment if they want that… not everyone does want to stay clean and sober. But for those that do, it’s a blessing in disguise to be sentenced long enough for them to get a grip on their reality…

  2. MT Therapist

    Good column. Interesting side effect of long term incarceration however is that once an addict has been sober for 45-days, they no longer qualify for intensive inpatient treatment (levels 3.1 or 3.3) and are left with only out-patient treatment options. MCDC gets multiple patients who check in after four months on a wait list only to be discharged within 48-hours because have been deprived of drugs/alcohol for more than 45-days due to incarceration.

  3. John Maatta

    Thank you for the necessary insight to a raging problem. It is great to have a judge who has great heart and understanding of the pain experienced.

  4. G Bruce Meyers

    I appreciate the difficult job you do in sentencing those with serious Substance Use Disorders. However, research has shown that many clients convicted of substance use crimes are in need of referrals to behavioral health (BH)providers. There is a reason the client started to use in the first place. Many inmates have trauma related to adverse childhood experiences or recent trauma which has not been diagnosed. Behavioral health assessments should be administered to the client before they are released and immediately upon release be required to see a local counselor or psychiatrist. Legislators also need to step up to the plate and advocate that Medicated Assisted Treatment (MAT) be paid for by Medicaid. Currently inmates do not qualify for Medicaid simply because they are incarcerated. The highest drug overdose death rates lie with those recently released incarcerated clients. They think that they can go back to using illegal substances at the same level they were before incarceration. My solution would be to shorten the sentencing time while giving the inmate BH therapy and MAT. If mental health issues and addictions are not dealt with during incarceration the recidivism rates for longer sentences and shorter sentences will probably remain the same.

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