Montana Public Radio

jails

Inmate Populations for Select County Jails in Montana
Charles Bolte / Montana Public Radio

County jail populations dropped this spring as the state reacted to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Now, with cases of COVID-19 on the rise, inmate populations in several of Montana’s largest county jails are growing and cell blocks are crowded. Some advocates are calling for more action to reduce the number of people locked up during this time. But local sheriffs say they’re balancing virus risks and public safety. It’s all leaving some inmates worried about their health.

The Montana Supreme Court will not mandate expanded measures requested by disability rights advocates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Montana prisons and jails.

Justices Tuesday unanimously denied a petition filed two weeks ago by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana on behalf of Disability Rights Montana.

In an effort to keep people from returning to jail and prison, the 2017 Montana Legislature approved $400,000 in funding for a pilot program to help former inmates find stable housing when they’re released.
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Misti Liberti had few available housing options when she was released from jail last fall. Liberti sometimes resorted to couchsurfing with acquaintances she knew before her jail sentence; a big  gamble for someone who has spent years battling chemical dependency.

"When I got out I was kind of at the mercy of staying with people, and you put yourself in a risky environment sometimes. You just go back to what’s familiar," she says.

A new law passed last year aimed at easing overcrowding in Montana’s jails isn’t rolling out as fast as some state officials had hoped. But it could be put into effect in the coming months.

The new pretrial release plan would allow the state to let some people, who are not a risk of skipping their trial or committing another crime, to stay out of jail.

State budgets.
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Proposed budget cuts could make the overcrowding at Montana’s jails and prisons worse. Groups supporting local law enforcement warned lawmakers of potential consequences of the coming cuts during the Law and Justice Interim Committee this afternoon.

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell.
Courtesy Lake County Sheriff's Department

The jail in Lake County is so overcrowded that there are more than 800 people on a waiting list to serve. The Lake County Sheriff’s Department is trying something new to deal with a shortage of cells.

Local government officials said the state is unfairly shifting the cost of housing the state’s prisoners to their taxpayers.  They are asking lawmakers to restore the payments to the actual costs

The root of the problem, said Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry is the sheer number of state inmates.


Missoula County Detention Center
Courtesy Missoula County Detention Center

Montana lawmakers are looking to other states for advice as they address concerns about overpopulated prisons and jails, and an overburdened justice system.

A bill asking for the end of capital punishment was voted down.
Courtesy Two Rivers Authority

Tuesday, Montana lawmakers will hear testimony on the growing concern that Native Americans are disproportionately represented in state prisons and jails.

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."

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