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Former Sheriff Bill Slaughter makes smooth transition to DOC director

Former Sheriff Bill Slaughter makes smooth transition to DOC director
THOMAS LEE / CHRONICLE

HELENA …quot; During his first month as director of the Montana Department of Corrections, Bill Slaughter was told $4.4 million had to be eliminated from his budget.

He was given a choice - do it himself or the Legislature would.

One can imagine him draping his cowboy-cut jacket over one of the inmate-made chairs in his new office in Helena, rolling up his sleeves and saying, "OK people, let's get to work."

With the help of his top administrators, "the real corrections professionals," Slaughter axed 51 positions, revamped the inmate medical insurance program and returned 18 leased vehicles that had been sitting unused in the parking lot.

"(The Legislature) let us do it and I appreciate that," Slaughter, 51, said in a recent interview, a year after taking the helm. "But I told them, 'From from this point on, it gets tougher because we're dealing with public safety issues.' And they've been able to work with us on that."

Someone to trim the fat and improve relations between the DOC and the Legislature was exactly what Gov. Judy Martz was looking for when she appointed Slaughter director last year.

"You always know who is in the room with you, there's no phoniness in Bill Slaughter," Martz said. "And I think he's a good communicator. He has the ability to work with the Legislature and all the people who need to be in the loop. No one is surprised at what's going on."

Martz has known Slaughter for six years. They met when she was lieutenant governor and he was the Gallatin County sheriff.

"I kind of watched his career, never knowing I'd be doing what I'm doing now," Martz said.

When Slaughter announced his retirement as sheriff in December 2000, quitting mid-term, he denied he was going to work for Martz's administration, though he had openly supported her bid for governor. His plan, he said, was to move to Hall with his wife, Renee, and raise cattle.

A month later, Martz announced his appointment.

"It is a huge honor to work in the cabinet for this governor," Slaughter said.

On his lapel, Slaughter wears a pin of the state seal surrounded with the body of a turtle, fashioned specifically for Martz's administration from her personal motto: "You're never going to move forward unless you stick your neck out."

"I'm not sure I'd work for any other (governor)," Slaughter said. "Her values and visions for Montanans very close to mine. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I took it."

Slaughter had his work cut out for him. He went from leading the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office, with its $3.3 million budget and 64 employees, to directing the state's fourth largest department, with a $98.4 million general fund budget and 1,025 employees.

He inherited a department that had a serious credibility problem with the state Legislature. Legislators believed that the DOC received more than its fair share of the state's till under former director Rick Day.

During Day's eight years in office, more than 90 percent of bills proposed by the DOC were approved and the budget was nearly doubled - from $54 million to $98 million a year.

Martz defended Day, to a point. She said Day and former Gov. Marc Racicot tackled a long-ignored corrections system and "brought it into the 20th century." That required a flurry of funds for new prisons, both state and privately run, as well as new programs and positions.

"I think some legislators believed they made mistakes during that rapid period," Martz said. "Certainly some mistakes were made."

Day, now executive director of the Washington State Gambling Commission, said people should judge the department's relationship with the Legislature on what was accomplished.

"You have to have credibility to get that much through (the Legislature)," he said. "At times we would disagree, but we always worked well with the Legislature."

Keep in mind, Day said, that corrections "has no constituency," and no one but the DOC will advocate for the DOC.

Nevertheless, Day's management of inmates and budgets raised questions for Reps. Cindy Younkin, R-Bozeman, and Jim Shockley, R-Victor, both members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Younkin said the DOC, under Day's direction, too often got itself into trouble with legislators by "saying one thing and doing another."

"Frankly, the DOC has no where to go but up," Younkin said. "I think (Slaughter) is moving in the right direction. He's establishing rapport, and anytime a director of a department can save money, they'll get kudos from the legislators.

"Given the time, Bill will make the DOC something the people will respect, rather than cringe at," she said.

When he was sheriff, Slaughter had his own problems with the DOC.

He remembers threatening to handcuff two female inmates to the fence outside of the women's prison in Billings when DOC employees didn't return his calls. The women were officially in state custody and taking up valuable space in Slaughter's already crowded jail in Gallatin County.

But a year into the job, having seen the commitment of his corrections staff, Slaughter is convinced the DOC staff wants to, and will do, better. His job, he said is to give them the tools and permission to let them "do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons."

Making the jump from a law enforcement officer to a corrections administrator has not been easy for Slaughter. In fact, he made sure he could maintain his status as a law enforcement officer, kept up his certifications and still carries a gun and a badge.

"I don't know why, but after 28 years (as a sheriff and sheriff's deputy) that was important to me," Slaughter said.

Now, as director of corrections, he has had to adopt an entirely different perspective.

"When I was in law enforcement, all I wanted to do was get (offenders) off the street," he said. "Now our job is to bring them back, helping them deal with addictions and giving them the tools they need to make them successful in society."

The Feb. 1 opening of Montana's first alcohol addiction treatment center for felony DUI offenders is a step in that direction, he said. The program was already in motion when Slaughter came on board last year, but he's now an advocate of it.

"I'll admit we're sticking out necks out, but (treatment programs) aren't new outside of Montana and they are working," he said.

The Warm Springs Addictions Treatment and Change, or WATCh, program was approved by the 2001 Legislature. Felony drunken drivers are sentenced to 13 months as a DOC inmate, six months of which are spent in the WATCh treatment center in the Xanthopoulous Building at the Montana State Hospital.

If the offender successfully completes treatment, they spend the remaining seven months on probation. If the offender doesn't complete or isn't accepted into treatment, they spend the 13 months in prison.

In addition to the savings of cutting the term of commitment in half, Slaughter says the treatment program is progressive because it forces inmates to deal with their problems.

"Do you want them dealing with their addictions or do you want them resting up in prison so they can go back and do it again?" he asked.

WATCh is run by Community, Counseling, and Correctional Services, Inc., a private company in Butte. The contract requires CCCS produce detailed quarterly reports.

Compiling better statistics and data for correctional programs is a priority for Slaughter, he said.

"We're not very good at it, but we're going to get better," he said.

That's good news to Rep. Shockley, who said the department has never had good statistics and numbers are exactly what legislators want.

Slaughter admits he will "never be a corrections professional." He says the people below him are the true brains of the operation and the reason why the DOC has functioned after so many years of neglect and lack of funding.

But that doesn't mean he's not learning. Slaughter described the learning curve of his first year as director "a bit like taking a drink from a fire hose."

There have been things that have surprised him.

For example, he was amazed to learn, truly learn, what probation and parole officers do. Even though he worked in law enforcement for 20-plus years, he didn't understand their responsibilities, including going out at all hours to check on their charges, those offenders not in one of the state's seven secure, locked-down facilities.

"The only thing between you and felony offender living in your community is a (probation/parole) officer," he said. "I didn't realize how important they are to public safety."

Slaughter wouldn't say how long he planned to stay at DOC, but confirmed he and Martz agreed that he would stay at least through her first term.

And a year into that commitment, Slaughter said he has been surprised at how well the appointment worked into his personal life. He had to rent an apartment in Helena during the week and returns to Hall on the weekends.

He still plans to retire, but at 51, he doesn't know when that will actually take place. For now, he's enjoying what he's doing.

"I find it fascinating and I'm having fun with it," Slaughter said.

Kathleen O'Toole is at kotoole@dailychronicle.com

© 2015 Bozeman Daily Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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