By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
By the time Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott took office in 2014, overcrowding at the county jail had already reached dangerous levels. In the two years that have passed, the problem hasn’t subsided.
In fact, McDermott believes, it’s bound to get worse as Missoula grows, placing lives and risk and leaving the county vulnerable to a lawsuit.
“Jail overcrowding has been an issue for this department and Missoula County for at least five years before I took over the office,” McDermott said while seated in his office. “When I became sheriff, there were plans underway to build a bigger jail – to add on to the existing jail. It was millions of dollars.”
Plans to expand the local detention center stand at roughly $16 million, and while a larger jail may be necessary at some point in the future, McDermott and a growing number of experts believe there are better ways to address the immediate problem, and do so with dignity.
Last month, the county received a draft of its new Jail Diversion Master Plan, one that looks to new practices in dealing with nonviolent offenders. The 115-page report digs deep into local statistics and the county’s inmate population, and explores solutions that don’t include incarceration.
“One of the things I knew working in detectives and in patrol, a lot of people have addiction issues,” said McDermott. “There’s substance abusers and a lot of people end up in jail because of mental health issues. There are alternatives to incarceration, and they really do work.”
The county has already increased several programs to head off overcrowding, including home arrest, GPS tracking and the 24-7 sobriety program. An estimated 125 people are currently enrolled in the sobriety effort. In exchange for bypassing jail, they’ve agreed to submit to a breathalyzer test twice a day every day.
McDermott said the program allows those charged with a particular nonviolent crime to keep their job and stay with their family. It also opens up beds in the detention center for serious offenders – beds the county badly needs.
“The latest report put us seven over our allotted 225 beds,” said McDermott. “On any given day, we’re sleeping people on the floor in booking. At one point last year, we were sleeping 16 people in booking. That’s a problem. When people are taking up beds and we end up arresting someone on a serious charge or violation, it becomes a shuffling game.”
In the most recent crisis, McDermott asked Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman to take several local inmates. Hoffman agreed, but such arrangements cost Missoula County additional money to both transport and house intimates at other facilities.
As it stands, it already costs the county $108 a day to house inmates at the local level.
“There’s a dollar and sense part of it, but I don’t focus on that,” McDermott said. “It’s truly about doing what’s right for our community and what’s right for people. If we can invest in preventable, more appropriate treatment options, we’d be way ahead.”
Last fiscal year, according to the new plan, more than 4,200 individuals were booked into the county jail, with 83 percent of them on nonviolent charges.
The report, written by state Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, found that while Native Americans represent just 2.9 percent of the county’s population, they represent around 14 percent of the jail population.
What’s more, the plan suggests, Missoula County courts have seen a disproportionate increase in the number of criminal cases filed between 2008 and 2014. While the county’s population grew by nearly 5 percent over that time, case filings grew 30 percent.
“(Wolken) was able to identify a population in the jail that was nonviolent, that had substance abuse issues, mental health issues, that are not receiving the best or proper care in the facility,” McDermott said. “We know they’d be better suited in a treatment center. Some of the folks with mental illness need to be hospitalized.”
The plan, championed in part by Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley and Ward 3 City Council member Emily Bentley, created a task force to explore areas where improvements could be made, including crisis intervention, more pretrial options, and stronger communication across the criminal justice system.
They also looked at the county’s needs, such as a 24-hour mental health crisis facility and a detox center.
“Our detention officers do an amazing job, but one of the challenges they face is people with substance abuse issues,” McDermott said. “We’ve had people die going through that withdrawal process in our detention center. Other folks that have mental illnesses present a huge challenge for our people. They’re not properly trained and equipped to deal with those issues in a detention setting.”
In 2014, Missoula County was ordered to pay $565,500 in damages to a family of a woman who died of an alcohol withdrawal seizure in 2009. Five years later, a 51-year old man committed suicide at the detention center by jumping from a second-floor railing.
While the county does have a mental health provider on hand to provide basic medical services, it’s not a service that can diagnose mental illnesses or start medication. More often that not, McDermott said, nonviolent offenders suffering from certain issues may come out of the jail in a condition worse than when they arrived.
“In a detention setting, it’s a huge challenge for us, and it’s a huge liability for the county,” McDermott said. “On the street, there’s a lack of options for people with a mental health crisis. That’s frustrating for us.”
The new jail diversion plan calls for a local 24-hour crisis center where law enforcement could divert patients away from a detention setting. It also calls for a detox unit. Both efforts are intended to get offenders help without locking them up and exacerbating the problem.
McDermott said his department has also launched a crisis intervention training program to help law enforcement recognized mental health issues. They’ve created a position to monitor the daily jail population as well, looking to identify nonviolent offenders and those with mental health issues.
This budgeting cycle, McDermott also plans to hard fund a position for a mental health provider at the facility. The position currently exists but is funded by a temporary grant.
“We’ve moved her office right into our booking area in detention so she can see people right when they’re brought in and try to divert them from there,” McDermott said. “With our crisis intervention training, instead of what typically would be an arrest, we can take an identifiable mental health issue and deal with that appropriately.”
While McDermott is reluctant to paint the situation as a financial one, he believes preventative efforts and community solutions would come cheaper than building a $16 million jail addition. Local hospitals also estimate their losses at $250,000 a year in providing uncompensated care, a cost that provides incentives to find a solution.
In contrast, McDermott noted, home-arrest bracelets cost around $19 a day and breath samples are $2 a test.
“A year from now, I’d like to see the plan adopted by the city and county,” McDermott said. “I’d like the hospitals, specifically in regards to folks with mental health issues, expand their services. I’d like to see a 24-hour mental health crisis facility with a law enforcement drop of.”
He also supports the plan’s call for a detox center, and expanding pretrial and home arrest programs.
“It’s about doing what’s right for our community and for people who find themselves in that situation and need treatment,” McDermott said. “If we can eliminated or greatly reduce nonviolent offenders, get them in these other programs and still hold them accountable for their offenses and get them back to work and family, then we’ll have the space to house people who need to be in our jail.”