WATCh East numbers impacted by recent legislation

Thursday, July 5, 2018

(Editor’s note: This is the second story looking at local impacts of judicial reform approved by the Montana legislature.)

Legislative changes made during the 2017 session have had an impact on how county attorneys across the state of Montana have been able to do their job, especially in regard to prosecuting DUI cases, and now, those same statutes are having an effect on WATCh East, Glendive’s DOC-contracted alcohol treatment facility.

Derek Gibbs, program director for WATCh East, said that while he doesn’t believe his facility is in any serious danger of suffering longlasting setbacks from the new statutes, they have been having an effect on the program.

The changes, which stem from House Bill 133, are part of a much larger group of bills directed at overhauling Montana’s judicial system.

Specifically concerning for Gibbs is a new piece of code that changed how prosecutors are able to handle DUI cases and how that affects how many people take part in the WATCh East program.

According to Gibbs, WATCh East has seen its attendance numbers decline over the last several months. While the decrease is not of an overly significant value in proportion to overall numbers, it has been enough to catch the attention of the program and its parent company Community, Counseling, and Correctional Services, Inc.

According to a Department of Corrections population report from June 29, WATCh East is contracted to have a capacity for 50 individuals in its treatment program. As of July 2, Gibbs said that the program is currently housing 46 individuals, and that while the four-person difference may not seem significant on paper, it has been persistent over several months and that it is unusual for a facility that is used to having a full capacity and even overcapacity at certain times.

While population numbers have dropped at the facility, Gibbs believes that such changes will not have any long-term consequences on the program’s ability to operate. The program has seen a steady, if small, decline over the last several months, Gibbs admitted, but said that it would take a much larger decrease, in the realm of half the population or more, to put the program at risk.

Gibbs also pointed out that WATCh East has not been the only program affected by the changes. WATCh West, which operates out of Warm Springs, has seen an even more noticeable decrease in its population.

Per the DOC’s June 29 population report, WATCh West is contracted to house 115 persons, and that currently it is only holding 89 individuals, well below what the program is used to.

Conversely, as part of a statewide issue, facilities operated by the DOC are seeing increasing numbers and overcrowding in some cases, according to Gibbs and the population report.

A previously reported on June 21 that Dawson County Attorney Brett Irigoin was particularly bothered by changes to the PFO designation, and that such changes were making it more difficult to pursue stricter and more effective sentences for repeat, felony DUI offenders.

“Essentially it made it more difficult to designate a defendant what we call PFO, which used to allow us to have potential jail time or penalties for any crime that would fit within that statute,” Irigoin said in June. “Combined with another change to the DUI statute, it’s basically capping what we can do in regards to keep somebody that’s repeatedly getting DUIs off the street.”

After four DUIs in Montana, a defendant is qualified as a felon and is eligible for treatment programs following an assessment by the Department of Corrections. In the past, according to both Gibbs and Irigoin, that would have been an automatic qualifier for an intensive, inpatient treatment program. Now, however, Gibbs said that most cases handled by the evaluation committee within the DOC are typically passed on to drug or treatment courts.

A key reason for that is that the overhauls to the state justice system in the legislature were designed to address overcrowding in the state’s prisons and jails. A 2015 report by the American Civil Liberties Union said overcrowding was found in prisons in jails across the state, including in Dawson County.

Gibbs believes that while state legislators had good intentions when trying to fix the justice system, the changes have simply not produced the intended results.

“I know that when the bill was implemented, it was implemented with good intentions and to open up access to treatment for people that need it in a shorter amount of time,” Gibbs said. “But putting it into implementation has been a struggle and the long-term effects of what it will have may not have been known at the time.”

In June, Irigoin said that he has been in contact with the Montana County Attorneys Association, and that plans were being formulated to address the changes in the legislature. Gibbs said that he did not know what plans CCCS Inc. had in place for addressing the changes, but said his utmost priority would be to continue to provide treatment for those in need.

At the end of the day, Gibbs said, while there’s reason to be concerned about how the legislative changes affect the business side of programs like WATCh East, his primary concern as someone who works in treatment is that the changes take away the ability to provide much needed help to a population that needs it the most.

“In all reality we’re doing the offender an injustice in my mind because we’re not giving them the best possible treatment,” Gibbs said. “And we’re doing the community an injustice because we’re not investing in the offenders by not offering intensive treatment.”

Reach Chris Deverell at

“In all reality we’re doing the offender an injustice in my mind, because we’re not giving them the best possible treatment,”
Derek Gibbs, WATCh East director