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Law enforcement, Montana officials butt heads over jail crowding

Law enforcement, Montana officials butt heads over jail crowding

Jail commons pod

Inmates fill a common area during lunch at the overcrowded Yellowstone County Detention Facility.

A Montana sheriff is saying efforts to reduce jail crowding are backfiring and shifting some of the state’s burden onto counties, while corrections officials say the claim is misguided and the state has done heavy lifting in response to sheriffs' requests.

In brief comments to an interim legislative committee on law and justice, which met in Helena on May 14, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said that sheriffs had long sought help from the state to reduce jail populations, since state inmates account for a portion — albeit a minority — of the population at crowded county jails.

Lawmakers last year provided $2 million to the Department of Corrections on the condition it reduce its county jail population from a high of 432 inmates in July 2017 to below 250 by the end of 2017, among other requirements. There are now an average of 210 state inmates being held in county jails.

State inmates can be held in county jails temporarily while awaiting a long-term prison or pre-release placement, or as a sanction for violating probation or parole conditions, among other reasons.

Gootkin said sheriffs had wanted the state to find a different secure facility to take those inmates, but some were simply released back into the community and committed new crimes.

“Now it’s our problem,” Gootkin told lawmakers. “They’ve made it our problem.”

The issue reflects a basic tension between the state's law enforcement and prosecutors on one side, and reform proponents on the other. The two groups are at odds over sweeping changes to the state's criminal justice system made during the 2017 legislative session, aimed in large part at reducing jail and prison crowding.

At the May 14 committee meeting, Department of Corrections Director Reginald Michael said the department had no control over the jail population incarcerated on new charges — only over those inmates being held on behalf of the state.

The department says the vast majority of the state inmates exiting county jail are not going directly back into the community.

Of the 2,838 people the state removed from jails since July 1, 42 percent went to an assessment or revocation center; 27 percent went to prison; and 19 percent went to a treatment facility, according to data provided to The Billings Gazette

The figures do not include those individuals who were serving probation or parole at the time they entered jail. That would skew the data, the department said, because those individuals are either going in on a short-term sanction with the intention of a quick return to supervised release, or they are going in on new charges, separate from the original matter the department was supervising the individual on, and should be viewed as a typical new arrest.

To house those state inmates, the department has added 205 beds to state facilities, often by double-bunking or converting single prison cells to shared cells. 

The department is also changing how it deals with probation and parole violations, relying less on short-term jail stays or a return to prison, and more on in-community responses such as increased drug and alcohol testing or GPS monitoring.

The department has said it would not make hasty release decisions and compromise public safety.

At the meeting Monday, Rep. Jimmy Patelis, R-Billings, echoed the corrections director to some extent, saying the state had done its part to reduce its jail numbers, and any crowding now is the responsibility of the counties.

"That is not our problem," he said. "That is the counties' problem now."

But Gootkin was not convinced.

In a subsequent phone interview, the sheriff reiterated his concerns that when state inmates are let out of jail, arrested on new charges and re-booked, they become the financial responsibility of the county and not the state.

“Because we know it’s happening, we know that the county attorneys know it’s happening, but we’re not tracking it,” Gootkin said. “They’re re-offending, they’re re-victimizing people, or making new victims, and the point is, those people would not have been released prior to last legislative session, when they were staying inside the detention centers."

Gootkin said prosecutors and law enforcement were underrepresented when the criminal justice reforms were being proposed and analyzed, and their concerns were ignored.

“They warned, 'These are going to be the repercussions, these are going to be the impacts,' and it pretty much fell on deaf ears,” the sheriff said. “(Lawmakers) pretty much had their minds made up on what they wanted to do.”

Reform proponents say the measures are only in the beginning stages of implementation, but that similar reforms enacted by other states have saved millions of dollars a year and made criminal justice practices more equitable.

The Department of Corrections is required to provide annual data on results of the reforms, including savings to the state, recidivism rates and prison population data. The first of the reports is due in August.


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