Gazette opinion: Grants won’t solve county’s ongoing problem

2014-03-30T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Grants won’t solve county’s ongoing problem The Billings Gazette
March 30, 2014 12:00 am

Collaboration between the Yellowstone County jail and the Community Crisis Center helped connect seriously mentally ill and addicted inmates to treatment services in the community, services that continued upon release from jail.

Project CALM served 183 clients. Altogether, those people spent 13,763 days in jail in the year before Project CALM started. While in the program, the group spent 2,108 days in jail — an amazing reduction of 84 percent.

Project CALM stretched a $250,000 grant to last about 2 ½ years, spending about $100,000 per year for case managers who were liaisons between the professional counselor at the jail and the Crisis Center. The project also trained dozens of Montana emergency responders to handle mental health crises. Unfortunately, when the federal grant procured through the Montana Board of Crime Control ran out, so did this highly successful community program.

250 addicts treated

A drug treatment program for Yellowstone County jail inmates served about 250 highly addicted offenders.

Eighty-two percent completed the program operated by Rimrock in cooperation with the Sheriff’s Office and District and Municipal drug treatment courts.

The program reduced demand for jail beds, reduced days of incarceration and reduced participants’ involvement in the criminal justice system.

In 2012, the Silver Leaf program received the National Criminal Justice Association’s Western Region Award.

The jail-based treatment was funded with a federal grant procured by the Montana Board of Crime Control, which provided $142,000 in 2006, but only $32,000 this year with Rimrock subsidizing most program costs. Now that the grant has run out, Rimrock can no longer afford to keep this successful program going. No new clients will be admitted as of April 1.

Déjà vu all over again

The Montana Board of Crime Control has, once more, applied for a federal grant to fund sorely needed addiction and mental health treatment that will address root causes of repeated incarceration for some seriously ill people in Montana’s largest jail. The Mental Health Center and Rimrock Foundation support the application. Sheriff Mike Linder supports it. District Judges Ingrid Gustafson and Mary Jane Knisely and Municipal Court Judge Sheila Kolar support the grant because they know that treatment works. More than half of criminal offenders are unemployed upon starting local treatment courts; virtually all have jobs when they graduate.

Much as we hope this grant is approved, we know it’s not a lasting answer. Effective jail diversion and community re-entry cannot lurch from grant to grant. Our drug treatment courts have no option for serving people still in jail for the rest of 2014. If the aptly named “Second Chance Re-entry Grant” is approved, it will start Oct. 1 with three months of required planning. Services won’t start until January 2015.

The Yellowstone County jail houses around 440 inmates. Dozens have chemical addictions, dozens more have serious mental illnesses, and many have both types of disorders.

About 80 percent of inmates in U.S. jails and prisons have some alcohol or other drug involvement in the offense that landed them in lockup, according to the National Center for Addiction & Substance Abuse. Between half and two-thirds are diagnosable as substance abusers or substance dependent, according to recent research. If only half of the people booked into the Yellowstone County jail last year were abusing/dependent on drugs, that would be more than 4,500 people.

A problem this big cannot be managed effectively with small, short-term programs. Systemic change is imperative.

While considering whether to add 100 beds to a jail that is routinely 150 inmates over capacity, Linder and County Commissioners Bill Kennedy, John Ostlund and Jim Reno need to consider the costs and benefits of connecting addicted and mentally ill inmates to effective treatment.

This county may need to add 100 jail beds. But without a system to screen inmates for addiction and mental illness, to connect them with services that provide treatment and to sustain the drug courts, 100 new beds won’t be enough.

Expand Medicaid

Covering all indigent Montanans with Medicaid would largely close the gap in care. The Legislature refused to expand Medicaid last year. Montanans need to revisit that decision.

The Legislature needs to adequately fund drug courts, and should receive a biennial budget request from the governor and the judiciary that reflects what treatment courts really need.

Promote jobs, not jail

The state and county need to help inmates connect to community care. Direct costs of such case management, as seen in Project CALM, are a fraction of the costs for building and operating a larger and larger jail. As a bonus, people who are sober and healthy are more likely to get jobs and pay taxes.

When candidates for Legislature and county government start asking for your vote, ask them what they will do about the treatment gaps that contribute to jail and prison crowding. Let’s talk costs of incarceration vs. benefits of getting inmates into recovery.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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