Incarceration patterns are regional – the South East has the highest incarceration rates; the rates in the northeast are much lower. How does Montana’s incarceration model compare to its contiguous states – Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Idaho?
All states in the region have followed the historical pattern for the past 40 years. Montana’s 1978-2019 growth ratio (4.0) is the lowest in the region, compared to Wyoming (4.3) in Idaho (4.9), South Dakota (6.0) and North Dakota (10.4). Notably, although North Dakota has grown tenfold in 4 decades, it started the era with an extremely low incarceration rate (21) and remains among the lowest incarceration rates in the country (219). North Dakota is clearly an exception in the region. With the exception of North Dakota, Montana has an incarceration rate about a quarter lower than its other neighbors.
So, is Montana jailing too many of its citizens?
Of course, in many ways the answer to this question is subjective. Montana’s incarceration pattern closely follows that of other Mountain West states. And the state’s overall incarceration rate is close to the national average. In this sense, Montana’s incarceration policies are not remarkably out of step with the rest of the country.
At the same time, it can be argued convincingly that Montana has excessively high incarceration rates. Its pattern of incarceration matches that of a country whose incarceration rates are widely considered to be too high. Historically, Montana’s containment rate is the highest in a generation. Additionally, while much of the rest of the country experiences a substantial drop in the number of people in prison – particularly during the COVID pandemic – Montana’s incarceration rate continues to rise.