Missoula Co. applies for program to alleviate jail overcrowding (NBC Montana)

By Lauren Bradley

MISSOULA, Mont. - The critical issue of jail overcrowding in Missoula County could be getting some relief.

The detention center is 16 years old. It can house 394 inmates, but jail officials say usually there are too many inmates and some of them sleep on the ground. That's one reason why the Missoula County Sheriff's Office tells us jail overcrowding is a top priority.

A program called Pay for Success is a financial model administered by the University of Utah. Administrators there award federal money to local governments that use it to address social problems. Missoula's focusing on jail overcrowding. The program targets western states including Montana.

We sat down with county officials to figure out how this plan would work.

County Commissioner Cola Rowley came across the Pay for Success program while scrolling through her email. It sparked a conversation about possible solutions to overcrowding at the Missoula County Detention Center.

"The jail overcrowding is the project that we would like to fund," said Rowley.  

Before that happens the county has to take the program for a test drive. That's where a year-long feasibility study comes in. One of the top questions is whether Missoula can follow the financial model to support the program. That means finding investors and an outside group to monitor whether the program's goals have been met.

"Measurable and objective, so in the end you're not arguing if this was successful or wasn't it or are you going to pay or not," said Rowley.

If it doesn't work, the county doesn't pay. If it does work, the county has to pay the bill.

Rowley and others want to explore problems around incarceration in Missoula. They know jail is the only option for some offenders but they want to see if others can fit in alternative programs like community service or the 24-7 Sobriety Program. They know there are underlying problems that must be solved, like mental health and substance abuse.

Missoula County Undersheriff Jason Johnson says they want to hire a lieutenant whose job would be to examine who's in the jail and why they're there, then figure out alternatives to incarceration.

"As a community we're looking closer at how to help people, like if it's a substance abuse issue, if a crime has been committed as a result of mental illness. Let's look at that issue and not just lock people up for a long period of time," said Johnson.

County officials tell us specific goals and solutions will be hammered out during the study.  Rowley took the first step by sending in the draft proposal.  She hopes, as does the sheriff's office, that Missoula gets the award so they can kick off the study this summer.

"We're going to be moving quickly on it, we're going to be working collaboratively with the county commission's office and others," said Johnson.  

Missoula County has asked for about $120,000 to launch the year-long feasibility study. That money would go toward hiring people to help implement the funding model.

Rowley tells us if the Pay for Success financial model works, they can use it as a funding model for other programs.