Montana Public Radio

Sheriff: Inadequate Funding Exacerbates Montana's Jail Problems

Feb 12, 2015

Credit ACLU

A new report says too many of Montana's county jails are unsafe for inmates.

The president of the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association says it makes some valid points and adds there’s a reason for those conditions.

Chris Hoffman is also sheriff of Ravalli County and says operating jails isn’t easy.

"It is difficult work. Our mandate is to keep those facilities clean and safe for both the inmates and detention officers. It's a challenge every day."

Hoffman says the Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association isn’t yet ready to comment on the ACLU’s report; but speaking for himself, he thinks it raises interesting issues worthy of more public discussion.

That report says too many of Montana's local detention centers are physically deteriorating, overcrowded, understaffed and not providing adequate inmate health care.

ACLU’s executive director, Scott Crichton, says there’s long been a need for a survey of Montana’s county jails.

"This has been a long time coming," Crichton says. "What's unique about it, is there's no centralized handling of county jails. Every county has it's own way of doing things. So, getting reliable information and coming up with a systemic overview has been something that's evaded everybody for decades."

Sheriff Hoffman agrees and says sheriffs haven’t intentionally ignored the problems identified in the report.

"We have worked for years, mostly without any additional funding, on peer reviews, peer recommendations. Obviously it's in the interest of each of the sheriffs in the 56 counties to provide the best service to their communities that they can and that includes the operation of the county detention center."

The jail Hoffman’s in charge of was praised in the ACLU report for how it's improved its suicide-prevention efforts. Sheriff Hoffman says it took lots of collaboration with local mental health professionals to get to this point.

He says it's complicated work and too many detention centers simply don't have adequate staff numbers to keep up.

"My opinion and mine alone is that we simply don't pay enough. The fact is, you're asking people to do a very complicated and very risky job both inside detention centers and out on the highways and byways of our communities. People feel like they can make more money out in the private sector and that's where they're looking."

ACLU of Montana's Scott Crichton that means people who aren’t necessarily criminals suffer. He points out that jails and prisons are full of people with mental health and chemical dependency problems. He says most counties are ill-prepared to properly deal with those issues.

"There's more than a half-dozen that are seriously contemplated building new facilities. We really want to help try to shape the discussion about who do we want to lock up in our county jails for the next 40 years."

He says everyone has an interest in issues such as inadequate jail staffing, crumbling physical plants and jail overcrowding.

"It usually takes having a family member, a neighbor or somebody who you're working with finding themselves in these conditions before somebody finally says 'Hey, that's not right'. These are people who are innocent until proven guilty. These are people who deserve Constitutionally adequate facilities. That's part of the deal," Crichton said.

Ravalli County Sheriff Hoffman says officials continue to try to find ways to create statewide uniform jail standards.