Monday, March 17, 2008

Prerelease might accept sex offenders

State officials would like the Great Falls Prerelease Center to accept some sexual offenders at its northside facility.

Great Falls legislative candidate and westside neighborhood council member Bob Mehlhoff is up in arms over the idea.

"That's the last thing we need," said Mehlhoff. He said his council unanimously voted to oppose any plan that would place sex offenders at the center.

The Great Falls Prerelease Center houses state prison inmates, with staff members helping them find jobs and offering counseling on how to resume a normal life once they are released.

Representatives from the Montana Department of Corrections plan to attend a March 19 meeting in Great Falls that will include delegates from Great Falls' nine neighborhood councils and members of the public.

Paul Cory, the administrator of Great Falls Prerelease Services, said center officials will consider the state proposal but have not made any decisions. Traditionally, the Great Falls facility has not accepted sex offenders, while those in Billings and Missoula do. The prerelease center in Helena has begun screening some sex offenders for its program, but has not yet accepted a sex offender, a state official said.

Kerry Pribnow, the state contract manager who deals with Montana's prerelease centers, said the state would like the Great Falls facility to take certain sex offenders, if a local screening committee agrees.

"We have no ability to go in and say, 'you must take sex offenders,'" Pribnow said. He added that he believes it is safer for a community to place lower-level sex offenders in a structured prerelease setting, rather than having the state release them directly from prison.

"The alternative is $100 and a bus ticket," Pribnow said.

He said that 97 percent of criminals in the Montana State Prison will eventually be released.

"We have no way of controlling that," he said. However, the state Department of Corrections can attempt to route a number of inmates through prerelease centers, where they can find jobs, and be subject to treatment and supervision, he said.

"They're coming back to your community anyway, so how are we going to do that?" Pribnow asked. "What's the smartest way to do that?"

Mehlhoff told city commissioners earlier this week that he is alarmed by the state's plan.

"I sincerely hope that we line up against that," Mehlhoff told city officials Tuesday night. "That would be a lose-lose situation." He said he does not want to see sex offenders find jobs in Great falls and stay here.

Cory said he is willing to listen to the state's pitch on the issue.

"They have asked us for years and years and years to consider taking sex offenders," Cory said. "(The state's) position is that they're already here."

Great Falls is home to 124 registered sex offenders, according to a state government Web site that lists violent and sexual offenders in Montana. The two cities where sex offenders are accepted into prerelease, Billings and Missoula, are home to the highest number of registered sex offenders in the state. According to the Web site, Billings has 267 registered sex offenders and Missoula has 238.

Those two cities and Great Falls top the state in the number of registered sex offenders; Kalispell has 93, Helena and Butte each have 66, Bozeman has 51 and Havre is home to 14 registered sex offenders, according to the Web site.

Pribnow said he doesn't believe the number of registered sex offenders living in Billings and Missoula is affected by the fact the prerelease centers there accept sexual offenders.

"It's very rare that Missoula and Billings take offenders from out of their jurisdictions," Pribnow said.

He added that the Great Falls Prerelease Center would not be asked to accept Tier 3 sex offenders, which means the court has deemed those people to be at a high risk to reoffend.

Pribnow said studies have shown the worst sex offenders, including pedophiles and serial offenders, are difficult to treat. However, he said sex offenders in the two lower categories, Tiers 1 and 2, might respond better to treatment. He noted that a methamphetamine user might convict a sex crime because the drug can act as a sexual stimulant.

"It doesn't mean that they're serial sex offenders," Pribnow said. "It means they're meth addicts."

Montana has prerelease centers in Butte, Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Missoula and Helena, he said.

If the Great Falls facility agrees to the state's proposal, it would be asked to screen Tier 1 or Tier 2 sex offenders who commit crimes in northcentral Montana for possible placement at the center, Pribnow said. He added that sex offenders from outside the area would not be sent to the Great Falls center.

Pribnow said a limited amount of state money would be available to Great Falls to electronically monitor certain hard-to-place sex offenders. The monitoring would not be available for minor offenders, he said.

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Richard Ecke at, or at 406-791-1467 or 800-438-6600.

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