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The Yellowstone County jail was built to hold a maximum of 297 inmates. Last week, it held 438.

The average daily prisoner count has been over capacity since 1997. In 2012, the average population was 410 prisoners with 10,169 bookings.

County law enforcement and court officials recognize that the overcrowding is worsening and untenable. They have already implemented programs that are keeping the jail population from being even higher:

The 24/7 Sobriety program allows dozens of DUI suspects and offenders to stay out of jail so long as they pass twice-daily breath tests, administered at their own expense.

The Community Crisis Center and the Hub drop-in center for homeless and seriously mentally ill adults help many ill people get needed care to stay healthier and out of jail.

Project CALM, a collaboration between the jail and Community Crisis Center, provides mental-health counseling to inmates and helps them connect to community services when they are released. There was a 55 percent reduction in days spent in jail by people who were served by Project CALM. Project CALM has operated on a federal grant that expires later this year.

Treatment courts provide intensive supervision to offenders whose criminal activity is related to chemical dependency or mental illnesses. These programs in Billings Municipal Court and Yellowstone County District Court have seen remarkable success in keeping people in recovery so they can work and stay out of trouble. However, treatment courts are limited in the number of people they can supervise because their resources are limited and funding is tenuous.

Clearly, these strategies already in use are helping to keep some people out of jail when they don’t need to be there. But the efforts so far are not enough.

That’s why Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder is looking at starting a sheriff’s work detail for “mittimus” offenders who are already employed in the community, but sentenced to do their jail time on their weekends. Rather than locking up these people at public expense, a sheriff’s work detail would allow them to work off their sentence in eight-hour days of community service, such as picking up litter. The work details would be supervised and offenders would be charged a fee. Most weekends, Yellowstone County has 20 to 30 mittimus inmates, usually misdemeanor offenders who are required by state statute to complete a minimum sentence.

In Ada County, Idaho, judges divert most mittimus offenders to the sheriff’s work detail. The offender is required to pay a fee of $25 per work day. The Boise program generated $417,000 in fees last year and diverted offenders from 15,702 days in jail.

“Let people pay their debt by working instead of sitting in jail,” Linder said. “We don’t take any discretion away from judges, you give them more.”

If Yellowstone County had such a program last year for all its mittimus inmates, the county would have collected about $170,000 in fees, Linder said.

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Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez noted that the county has a number of non-jail options, but said they “could be used to greater extent.” For example, misdemeanor inmates can be placed on probation and supervised by Alternatives Inc., and misdemeanor DUI offenders can serve part or all of their mandatory sentences at a halfway house (where they pay a fee) instead of staying at the jail.

Hernandez said he gives inmates a day’s credit on their jail sentence for every day they work on the sheriff’s present inmate labor program in which inmates are in jail unless working.

Linder also is researching expanded use of monitoring systems for pretrial and presentence release. He is interested in a reliable, scientifically valid assessment tool that would help law enforcement and courts determine an inmate’s risk of flight and risk to the community.

Yellowstone County will probably have to expand the jail in coming years, but that expansion should hold prisoners who really need to be locked up. Meanwhile, there are too many prisoners in too little space and the situation is getting worse by the month.

Linder, his staff and the mental-health professionals working with the jail are commended for looking beyond traditional detention for solutions.

We call on our judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys and the County Commission to support innovative alternatives to incarceration that ensure public safety while promoting a healthier, more productive lifestyle for offenders. The result will be less cost to taxpayers and more offenders held accountable for showing up on time, working and taking better care of themselves.

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