As Jails Become Crowded, Officials and Judges Get Creative

By Beacon Staff

Overcrowded jails in Montana have altered the sentencing habits of judges, forced county officials to release nonviolent offenders to make room for inmates accused of more serious crimes and led detention officers to retrofit their jails to accommodate more inmates. And as the state’s urban centers continue to grow, the problem of overcrowding is only deepening.

Authorities have gotten creative, putting extra bunks into formerly one-person cells and using other government rooms to house criminals. Technology – like electronic and GPS monitoring devices – eases the strain, as do alternatives to incarceration such as substance and mental health treatment. Deferred or suspended sentences help manage jail populations as well.

In Flathead County, officials believed they had a golden opportunity to alleviate their overcrowded jail when they applied for $32 million in stimulus money to expand the justice center. For good measure, they also appealed for $12.73 million to the state’s Congressional delegation, a request aimed specifically at the jail and not additional office or court space. The justice center’s overall design plans call for the expansion of the existing jail as well as more space for the courts and administrative offices.

But as of last week, it didn’t appear the requested money was coming their way. County officials have received word on other stimulus-funded projects, but haven’t been told anything about the justice center, which constitutes nearly 50 percent of their total $71.3 million request.

“No news is bad news,” County Administrator Mike Pence said.

Pete Wingert, a county undersheriff, had thought the justice center’s chances were good. Design plans were hammered out and as far as he could tell the proposed expansion was ready to break ground as soon as funding came through, which is the often-repeated criteria for projects seeking money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“They’re asking for shovel-ready projects and I don’t see how this isn’t shovel ready,” Wingert said. “I guess I’m not sure what we’re missing.”

It’s no secret that jails throughout the nation are facing difficulties associated with overcrowding. For years, officials have pegged overcrowding at the Flathead County Detention Center as a foremost concern.

The main culprit for jail congestion in Montana is population growth. But Captain Dennis McCave, the longtime commander of the Yellowstone County Detention Center, said economic woes haven’t helped the situation. Destitution tends to breed criminal activity.

Across the state, crowded jails are forcing county officials to be inventive. In Billings, one-person cells now have two bunk beds, McCave said. At Flathead County’s detention center, the library is used to house inmates. Books are now stored on carts. Missoula and Gallatin counties also deal with overcrowded jails.

McCave said his jail’s official capacity is 286, but through rearranging and tight fitting, the “operational capacity is between 350 and 375.” McCave added: “There’s always that concern that the next shoe’s going to drop and we’ll get 30 or 40 more than we can hold.” Flathead’s detention center originally held 65, but was retrofitted for up to 92, though it’s not uncommon to exceed that number. On a recent Monday, there were 94 inmates.

“The more people you stuff into a small place, the more tense it becomes,” said Chief Dave Hutton, chief detention officer for the county.

Crowded jails have also altered the court system. Judges, county attorneys and law enforcement officers often look for alternatives to incarceration. For judges, this means sentencing nonviolent misdemeanor offenders to treatment, electronic monitoring, deferred or suspended sentences, or fines without jail time, McCave said.

Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan said his department has worked closely in recent years with the county attorney’s office and both the district and municipal courts to “streamline” the legal process.

Meehan said the county is looking into a grant that would bring in new electronic monitoring technology. Counties such as Yellowstone and Missoula have also adopted far-ranging GPS devices in addition to the electronic bracelets.

But the offenders who do get sentenced to jail often present detention center officials and county attorneys with tough decisions. If there are five violent offenders that must be put in jail and the cells are already at capacity, what five inmates should be released?

Substance abuse treatment and counseling takes some of the load off of jails, McCave said. Instead of certain alcohol or drug offenders being incarcerated, they can remain within the community while attending counseling. In some cases, they are restricted to house arrest or electronically monitored. In the Flathead, Meehan said DUI offenders always are placed in jail because they present a danger to the community.

McCave said there is a persistent debate between pro-jail hardliners and advocates of alternatives to incarceration. Authorities must consider the public’s safety when deciding who can stay on the streets and who should be behind bars.

“Do you lock up all the thieves?” McCave said.

But treatment and monitoring raise dilemmas as well. Over time, McCave said, it may become evident that treatment for a chronic DUI or other offender isn’t working. They become a detriment and danger to society or, as McCave says, “they have to be able to go to jail.”

“The concern is that if we use the alternatives to such a degree, how do you know when you’ve maxed out the alternatives to incarceration?” McCave said.

For Flathead County, it’s back to the drawing board. Wingert said his department will continue to apply for available grants. But the lack of stimulus funds, he said, is a tough blow. Wingert and Meehan both said eventually the county will likely have to turn to the taxpayers.

“It will probably take a bond issue,” Meehan said.

For now, Hutton said the 31-employee staff will continue to operate as it has.

“We do what we do; we just manage. It’s our duty to the public,” Hutton said. “But do we need the expansion? Yeah.”

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