By Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA - First-time drug offenders in Montana are currently not given the option to enter residential treatment facilities in the state. A bill in the Montana Legislature would change that.

House Bill 278 would give judges the option to defer these first-time offenders to a live-in treatment facility, or rehab center, rather than giving them probation.

Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, is the sponsor of the bill and said many offenders would not be able to succeed on probation without meaningful treatment.

Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell
Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell

“If we wait multiple times down the road that they’re failing, before, ‘Ok, now we’re going to give you meaningful treatment,’ they’re just that much further down that road,” Regier said.

Adrianne Slaughter, government relations director for the Montana Department of Corrections, said at the bill’s first hearing on January 19 that the department has 438 beds for residential treatment programs throughout the state, but they are occupied most of the time.

Rep. Regier said this bill would not expand that amount.

“This is really just that option, should those stars align and there’s room on the bus for one more, under the current budget and capacity. It’s not expanding anything, it’s just giving that option should that case arise,” Regier said.

Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Matt Kuntz supported the bill at its first hearing in the House.

“It gives the judge a realistic chance that this person is not going to be back in my courtroom in three months,” Kuntz said.

Mark Murphy, who represents the County Attorneys Association, said the state has primarily looked at the sellers to try and control the epidemic.

“At this point we’ve been advocating as long as I’ve been up here to start looking at the demand side,” Murphy said.

Murphy said the state does have a couple of effective methamphetamine treatment facilities, but they’re only for major felony offenders.

“Providing this kind of treatment is a great idea – it’s costly – but it’s one opportunity to break the cycle of addiction and return people to productivity,” Murphy said.

At the bill’s hearing in the House in January, Slaughter said the costs vary for several programs provided by the department. Those costs range anywhere from $92 a day for males to $152 a day for females.

The House passed the bill in January -- sending it to the Senate for consideration -- on a vote of 99 to one. The Senate Judiciary Committee hears the bill Friday.

Freddy Monares is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.