HELENA — The Montana Department of Corrections is breaking the law by housing youth and adult offenders in the same facility and by contracting to send girl offenders to a youth prison in Idaho, a recently released audit found.
Corrections director Mike Batista said he disagreed with the findings of the Legislative Audit Division, and the low inmate populations at the Pine Hills and Riverside youth correctional facilities required department officials to take action to maximize resources.
There are no safety issues as a result of housing adults at both the 72-bed Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility for boys in Miles City and the 20-bed Riverside facility for girls in Boulder, corrections spokeswoman Judy Beck said.
The Legislative Audit Committee is set to take up the report on Thursday.
The department started placing adult offenders at both youth correctional facilities over the last year.
The rising adult inmate population created the need for additional housing, while the decreasing juvenile inmate population created space at the two youth facilities, according to the audit.
However, state law prohibits the department from placing youths in facilities where adult offenders are carrying out their sentences, the auditors wrote.
In the case of Pine Hills, department officials followed federal regulations that require youth offenders to be separated from adult offenders by sight and sound. But Montana law states explicitly that youth and adult offenders can’t be housed in the same facility at all, the auditors wrote.
As of Monday, there were 39 youths and 13 adults housed at Pine Hills, according to the department’s prison population report.
In Riverside, the department contracted with 5-C Juvenile Detention Center earlier this year to place girl offenders in a prison in St. Anthony, Idaho, freeing up the entire Montana facility for adult offenders. Three Montana girls are now at the Idaho facility, Beck said.
The auditors found the contract violates state law. The department may only sign a contract for the placement and care of delinquent youth when the youth prison population is over capacity, or when the state doesn’t have an adequate facility, the report said.
The auditors recommended the department follow the law by using Pine Hills and Riverside as they were intended.
Batista wrote in response that along with the laws the audit cites, another state law requires that the department use its resources at maximum efficiency. The department decided to follow that law because of the low youth offender population, excess capacity in those prisons and because of the rising cost of care.
Riverside’s average population count last year was just four girls, while Pine Hills was 53 and falling, Beck said.
“Continuing to run the programs at this cost did not make good fiscal sense and was in violation of the law requiring the department to use state resources at maximum efficiency in a coordinated effort to develop and maintain comprehensive services and programs in the field of adult and youth corrections,” Beck said.
Batista acknowledged the laws conflict with each other in the department’s current situation but said they need to be reconciled through legislative action.
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