By Evelyn Pyburn

Perhaps the most commonly heard question in Billings is “Why don’t they expand the jail?” As incidents of crime become more prevalent, impacting citizens in more direct ways, and as news reports indicate many of the perpetrators remain on the streets, the issue rises to the top of most conversations in the community.

A frustrated public can be heard to lay the blame on “lenient judges” who they see as handing down minimal sentences to criminals. Or to cops who don’t arrest people involved in misdemeanor crimes. Or to county commissioners who are simply opposed to expanding the overcrowded jail.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said County Commissioner John Ostlund about the claim that the county commissioners are simply opposed to expanding the jail. While expanding the jail may seem to be a logical solution to an over-crowded jail – doing so is a very complex issue – one which begs the question, “Will that really solve the community’s problems with crime?”

Dealing with the increase in crime that has impacted the Billings and Yellowstone County is multifaceted. There are issues at every turn in the entire judicial system from the moment a suspect is arrested throughout the entire adjudication process – problems which leaves many perpetrators sitting in jail for extended periods waiting on the system, and forces the release of others back onto the streets to commit more crimes.

As County Attorney Scott Twito once commented, if the jail is expanded “We will just fill it up,” underscoring that an expansion will not have addressed the reasons there are so many people sitting in jail.

At another public meeting, when asked about it, County Commissioner Don Jones pointed out that were the jail expanded and all the other issues resolved, the county could be sitting with an empty jail. Would that be a wise expenditure of taxpayer money?

The County is the only local agency that has authority to build and operate a jail. It is why the City of Billings approached the county, not long ago, with the offer of $500,000 to help finance the cost of building a 72-hour holding facility if the county would agree to operate it, with the idea that having to serve just two or three days in jail, would be a deterrent for some criminals. The idea and offer was positively received by the commissioners and by the County Sheriff Mike Linder, who said, “I would like to try it.”

Shortly after the city’s offer, County Attorney Scott Twito announced his appointment of a sub-committee of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) which will be made up of people representing various aspects of the community including city and county officials, law enforcement, judges, a legislator and others, to meet twice monthly to closely examine the many aspects of the judicial system and report recommendations to CJCC regarding solutions to best address the surge in criminal activity. Their meetings are open to the public.

County Commissioners approved the formation of the committee and appropriated $150,000 to enable the sub-committee to engage whatever professional expertise it might need, including engineers or architects to delve into costs and options of expanding the jail.

Serving on that committee is County Commissioner Mark Morris, who explains that more than trying to find answers to problems; they have to determine what questions to ask.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest factors impacting the entire judicial system is a shortage of personnel – of casual laborers to professionals, of detention officers, medical providers, policemen, and attorneys. From one end of the process to the others the first issue to emerge is the ongoing inability to fill open staff positions.

Right now, the Yellowstone County Detention Facility is short 18 detention officers and the Sheriff’s office is constantly seeking more deputies. The County Attorney’s office has been struggling to attract and retain the lawyers it needs and is short-handed most of the time.

One significant vacancy for the county and the state has been a chronic need for more mental health professionals who can provide mental health evaluations for those charged with crimes but are in need of mental health evaluations in order for their cases to be adjudicated. There are inmates of the jail who have been there for more than a year waiting for a mental health evaluation. There is available, only one mental health professional qualified to do that, for the entire state, pointed out Ostlund.

Morris pointed out that one solution that has been discussed by the CJCC is to hire professionals from out of state to do the evaluations. “It would be less expensive than keeping someone in the jail for a year,” he said.

Not only is the shortage of staff an issue that generates a backlog in the adjudication process that keeps inmates in jail longer, contributing to the issue of an overcrowded jail, but to add onto the jail will amplify that problem as they attempt to staff it.

There’s no doubt that the Yellowstone County Detention Facility is overcrowded. It began exceeding maximum capacity almost from the very first day the last expansion was completed. With a maximum capacity of 434 inmates, its daily population ranges between 590 and 600.

The first question to be answered is how many beds should be added? “Is it 600 or 1000?” asks Ostlund, “No one knows the answer.” Another question is what kind of a facility should be built, a minimum security or a major security facility. Costs vary depending on those answers, and not all the data is known in helping to make those decisions.

How much will it cost? There are many aspects to expanding the jail that impose significant costs that may not be considered by those thinking of just building a physical structure. The commissioners estimated that the cost of design and construction would be about $45 million, which could vary greatly depending on the size of the addition. There are different kinds of facilities and different ways to build them, many of which are dictated by law, that would also effect cost.

Besides building the building there is the annual operational cost – costs of maintenance, staffing for guards and processors, for the operation of a kitchen and a laundry, and to meet the mandatory medical services that have to be made available to inmates, including such things as dental care. There are many services for inmates that the county must provide in a jail which are mandated by state and federal laws.

The commissioners explained that there is significant processing that must be done to arrest and to release someone even for a minimum security, 72-hour holding facility. They must be evaluated and everything they have must be documented and stored, and available to be reclaimed when they are released. And, there are liability issues associated with that process.

Increasing the jail from 434 beds (currently) to 884 (increase of 450 beds) would project an increase in operations of more than $10 million annually, according to the County Finance Office. That would cover the cost of medical, food, insurance, maintenance, miscellaneous operational costs and full time employees. Operational costs in FY2023 for the current jail were a little over $13 million.

There are other issues that expanding the current jail brings for the county. Currently the jail occupies a space shared with the Evidence Building and the Road and Bridge Department. There is not enough room to add onto the jail without moving one of the other facilities. Do they move and probably rebuild the Evidence Building or the Road and Bridge Department?

Ostlund noted that the county does own vacant space across the street from the jail, currently used for parking. There is no doubt that the day will come that they will have to use it for expanding one facility or another, he said.

Ostlund said that the cost is a concern, because “We care what the impact is on our taxpayers.” When it comes to asking the voters to pass a bond the commissioners believe they should be able to answer all these questions for the voters. “We need to have our ducks in a row,” said Ostlund, “If we are going to make a case we are going to have to be credible.”


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