By Bonnie Chan
Missoula County's jail was so overcrowded earlier this month that 16 inmates slept on the floor of the booking area. The situation prompted officials to transfer 14 inmates to Ravalli County's detention center—one of the latest short-term solutions to a chronic jail overcrowding problem that has plagued the county for years.
Missoula County officials are now embarking on an effort to find a longer-term solution to the problem. In May, the county earned an $80,000 grant from the University of Utah's Policy Innovation Lab to explore ways to alleviate jail overcrowding. The grant funds research and support for diverting low-risk and nonviolent offenders from jail, decreasing recidivism, providing mental health and other support services to those at high risk of re-offending, and teaming up with community organizations to find alternatives to jail time.
Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott says he is keen to keep more nonviolent offenders out of jail and does not support expanding the jail or building a new one.
"Our community really supports the idea of alternatives to incarceration," McDermott says. "Some of the programs we have with ankle bracelets, home arrest, and sobriety and accountability programs are very successful. They allow people who are low-risk to our community to stay out of jail, remain with their families, keep their jobs, make their doctor's appointments."
The sheriff's office also recently hired a new lieutenant, Cheryl Ziegler, to prevent overcrowding at the county jail on a daily basis. Ziegler's job is to identify inmates on the jail roster who are low-risk to the community, then work with the county attorney's office and the municipal court to release such inmates on home arrest or other incarceration alternatives—sometimes within a matter of days, according to McDermott.
The University of Utah grant is part of a White House Social Innovation Fund initiative called Pay for Success. Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley describes the initiative as social impact funding, in which private investors pay for the feasibility analysis and implementation of the county's efforts to address jail overcrowding. The government then pays the private investors back, with a small amount of interest, but only if the efforts prove successful.
The county is now in the feasibility stage of the grant process and will be exploring potential solutions until as late as next March, Rowley says.
"The White House has said they're really excited to work with us because Missoula is the smallest place that has tried this [Pay for Success model]," she says. "So, we're really guinea pigs ... It's a big undertaking and we want to do it right."
Missoula is not the only Montana county struggling to resolve jail overcrowding. Across the state, administrators report conditions in which some jails have consistently held more than double their intended capacity.
In Flathead County, officials are in negotiations to buy a 130,000-square-foot former Walmart building in Evergreen for conversion into a new jail and sheriff's office. In eastern Montana's Roosevelt Ctounty, where Commissioner Gary MacDonald says jail overcrowding became especially acute with the Bakken oil boom, officials are currently working with an architect to design a new jail and hope to put a bond measure on the ballot in November to fund the project.
Lewis and Clark County is also seeking to build a new 244-bed facility to supplement its overcrowded jail in Helena. Architect Jacob Augenstein of Slate Architecture, the firm leading the project, says building the new facility is a way to alleviate the immediate problem of overcrowding, but it's not meant as a long-term solution.
"There's no way to resolve the overcrowding problems that we have currently other than a bigger jail, so that has to be fixed," Augenstein says. "But we're also looking at ways to not throw people in jail just because we have a bigger jail."
Expansion efforts have already proven less successful in some counties, however. Earlier this month, Yellowstone County voters rejected a proposed levy that would have raised about $1.8 million a year in perpetuity to fund the staffing of an expansion at a women's jail that was designed for 38 inmates but now holds between 70 and 95 daily. A similar ballot proposal to expand the jail in eastern Montana's Dawson County failed to pass in November.
Montana's jail overcrowding problems reflect a 30-year trend toward greater levels of incarceration nationwide, with the majority of inmates currently held on nonviolent offenses. In Montana, county detention center administrators estimate that over 90 percent of inmates were charged with addiction-related offenses, particularly prescription drug and alcohol abuse, according to an ACLU report released in February.
McDermott attributes Missoula County's jail overcrowding issue to an expanding court system and increased criminal caseload. But he points to a number of newly elected county officials, such as himself, Rowley and County Attorney Kirsten Pabst, who have a "more contemporary view of criminality and incarceration" and an interest in alternatives to jail.
"This is really an exciting time for Missoula County because we're all very passionate about not building another jail," he says. "We would rather see a 24-hour mental health facility, a detox center or some kind of Housing First option for folks. In my view, it's more about connecting people to resources than it is about tucking people away and locking them up."