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Law Enforcement to Bullock: Concerns on jail overcrowding, commitment process

Honorable Governor Bullock:

On behalf of the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and the thirty-eight Sheriffs who operate local detention facilities, we are writing in hopes we can collectively address the issue of jail overcrowding and the misuse of the Department of Corrections Commitment process. This is a long-standing problem that has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

As you know, Montana is the only state in the nation that has a DOC Commit as a sentencing option. With the creation of the DOC commit, Montana led the way to ensure sentenced offenders were expediently transferred to the right placement, at the right time and with as little trauma as possible. Department of Corrections administrators, criminal justice stakeholders and legislators acknowledged that sending every offender to the Montana State Prison for classification slowed down the procedure of processing inmates and placing them in the appropriate setting.

Unfortunately the DOC Commit has been bastardized over the years and has resulted in a backlog of DOC holds in local detention facilities and long delays in getting offenders into the appropriate DOC placements, be that a community treatment bed, a specialty program such as MASC and WATCh or the Montana State Prison.

The DOC Commit has become a means for the state to save money and pass on the financial burden of inmates sentenced to the State to the local detention facilities and county taxpayers. As you know, the rate of reimbursement from the state to local detention facilities is capped at $69.31 per day, per inmate. This does not cover the actual expenses, which results in counties subsidizing the remainder of the costs to hold DOC commits and manage their care, welfare and safety. The rate at the Montana State Prison is between $80 and $90 per inmate, per day and the costs are even higher at treatment programs.

The financial burden is only one aspect of this challenge. The other, and arguably more important facet, is the human toll. Local jails were designed as pre-sentence, temporary holding facilities. They were not designed to hold offenders post-adjudication for an extended period of time. Detention facilities do not have the space, funding, or capacity to offer much needed treatment, programing and services for offenders. Yet, local detention facilities are housing offenders sentenced to the DOC for longer and longer periods of time. It is not uncommon for a Sheriff to discharge an offender directly out of the county jail after the offender has served his or her entire DOC sentence in the local detention facility. This is simply unacceptable. As of June 1 in FY 2020, there were more DOC Commits in county jails pending placement than there were in a prerelease center or a treatment facility.

Sheriffs in the state have been asking for relief and cooperation with the Montana Department of Corrections for years. It has largely fallen on deaf ears. With overcrowded facilities, COVID-19 presents an especially volatile situation. Sheriffs and Detention Commanders relied upon CDC guidance and best practices from nationally recognized jail associations to mitigate and manage COVID-19 within their secure facilities. However, precautionary measures could not account for or alleviate the overcrowded conditions. The result is COVID-19 outbreaks within local detention facilities, such as the Cascade and Yellowstone County Detention Facilities. Despite efforts in the Cascade and Yellowstone facilities and other jails, overcrowding is overcrowding and there is only so much space for inmates. Additionally, local detention centers do not have the discretion to close their jails; they must continue to operate in as safe a manner as possible despite other events occurring, such as a public health crisis.

Not all local jails are created equally. Some have more funding, available programming and space. For those particular detention facilities with available beds, the Sheriff should have the sole discretion to house DOC commits for an extended time.

We respectfully ask the State of Montana and the Department of Corrections to manage their inmate population without balancing the fiscal needs of the state and the inmate population on the backs of local detention facilities. The Department of Corrections continually ignores the needs, risks, and impacts at the local detention facility level in order to meet their
financial and programmatic objectives. This is the antithesis of a productive and collaborative partnership.

DOC communicated with MSPOA at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, but communication is not the same as cooperation and collaboration. MSPOA made a clear and articulate request for DOC not to systemically and unilaterally halt transfers because we knew it would negatively impact local detention facilities both monetarily and in terms of safety inside the
facilities. Unfortunately that request was ignored and the result has been outbreaks in local detention facilities.

We welcome the opportunity to talk about realistic and viable solutions to ensure the DOC Commit process is used appropriately, offenders are not held in local detention facilities for an extended period of time, inmates receive the treatment and services as ordered by the court, jails have capacity to manage the non-DOC offenders in their jurisdictions, and local
detention facilities are not the placement of first resort in order to save the state money.

Please respond and let’s start working on a resolution together.

Allen Fulton, Rosebud County Sheriff, MSPOA President

MSPOA Board of Directors

Wynn Meehan, Broadwater County Sheriff
Scott Van Dyken, Cascade County Captain
Donna Whitt, Toole County Sheriff
Pat Roos, Custer County Undersheriff
Tony Harbaugh, Custer County Sheriff
Leo Dutton, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff
Brian Gootkin, Gallatin County Sheriff
Mike Linder, Yellowstone County Sheriff
Keith Van Setten, Teton County Sheriff
Heidi Visocan, Sheridan County Sheriff
Ryan Dunster, Missoula County Deputy
Nic Eisele, Fallon County Undersheriff
Eric Gilbertson, Lewis and Clark County Sergeant
Katie Mills, Dawson County Undersheriff
Fernando Venegas, Lake County Lieutenant