Montana Viewpoint: Bad roads and bad guys


Jim Elliott

What do bad roads and bad guys have in common? They are both results of America’s inability to fund preventive measures that would not only improve the country but also cost less than the current system of waiting to fix a problem, be it physical or social, until it has gone completely gunnybags.

It’s not that we want the results we get, but it’s politically easier to find the money to fix a crisis than it is to prevent one. The physical infrastructure, those public facilities that keep the wheels of commerce running, should be the easiest to prevent from decay because there are no moral issues associated with them. At least I don’t know of anyone who has a moral problem with fixing roads. (Please contact me if you do!)

Preventive maintenance is dealing with an issue up front. The cost is front-loaded and always cheaper than waiting until things fall apart. There the cost is back-loaded. There is enough widespread concern that Montana’s roads, school buildings, water and waste treatment facilities, to name a few, are in bad shape, that an outfit called the Montana Infrastructure Coalition has been formed. It is made up of Montana business leaders, local government officials and contractors, among others.

The physical infrastructure is easiest to quantify, too, and the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card for a state’s infrastructure. You can look up their report on Montana at It’s not good.

The social infrastructure, is in bad shape, too, at least if you view a successful society as one that provides people with the ability to make something of themselves, and it, too, has a higher back-loaded cost. The indicator of success or failure I use is the number of people in prison.

The United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, and I personally can’t believe that we have 22 percent of the world’s bad guys.

Our incarceration rate is higher than both China’s and India’s, countries with much larger populations than ours. (If it gives any comfort there is one country that has a higher incarceration rate than the U.S. and that is Seychelles. You can look it up, I hadn’t heard of it either. (Data from

In Montana we have about 13,000 people under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections—about one Montanan per hundred. Not all of them are in the slammer, but of those who are, according to, it costs about $37,400 a year to keep one male prisoner in the Montana State Prison. It costs more to house a female prisoner, and almost three to four times as much to house a juvenile offender.

In my book, that $37,400 could be put to a lot more productive use than warehousing Montanans, and many of those things we could be supporting with our money, such as education, day care, mental health programs, nutrition and stable parents, to name a few, might prevent a person from turning to crime.

(At this point I would like to take time to point out that two of America’s most important jobs— being a parent and being a legislator—do not require any training whatsoever. Draw your own conclusion.)

I am not a social studies expert, and I gladly yield to others in determining what actions taken early could reduce a person’s propensity for crime; but I have an intuition that children with happy childhoods—kids who are well fed, kept warm, have parents with jobs, and of course, are loved, do not generally use drugs or rob banks.

Will my crying in the wilderness change anything? I doubt it, but, as the man says, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.”

Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.

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