Currently the Missoula County jail can hold 370 adults and 24 juveniles (48 of these can be women, while the other 176 are men).
But wait a moment - the Missoula County jail contracts with the Montana Department of Corrections to fill 146 of those beds.
The contract to do this runs until 2029 so even if the county wanted to free up space, it couldn’t.
So in effect, the 370-bed jail can only really hold 224 inmates...plus another 24 teens.
Alas, as I told you nearly three years ago, the Missoula jail is always full.
When I looked at the jail roster on Friday, April 19, I found that the jail had 344 inmates on their roster.
That’s 120 more than the jail can safely hold.
I’m pretty confident that the Department of Corrections inmates aren’t on the jail roster.
I tried to find out for sure by calling the Missoula County jail, but I was unable to get anyone on the phone.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because the weather is getting warmer. More and more transients are coming to Missoula because of this, mostly so they can take advantage of the free services we offer them while getting little more than slaps on the wrists for the bad behavior they exhibit while in our community.
And let’s stop calling this a homeless problem - it’s not. It’s a drug problem.
Many of the 200+ people that are staying at the Poverello Center each night are there not because they’ve fallen on hard times, but because they have serious problems with drugs and alcohol (the Pov’s capacity is supposed to be just 97 people a night).
Most of the 125+ people living under the Reserve Street Bridge aren’t there because they’ve fallen on hard times - they choose to live that way because they’re addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Most of the 99 police officers we have in Missoula are burned out by this, and they’re incredibly frustrated by the lack of political will coming from Missoula’s elected officials when it comes to tackling this problem.
Businesses are also growing weary of the situation that Missoula has created for itself.
Let’s take a few moments to explore all this.
The Incredibly Frustrated Missoula Police
Last August, the Missoula Police Department received funding for three new officers. They’d only allowed the third officer to be added after nixing a $150,000 street study.
At the time, the police force was below 100 officers, despite having the capacity for 109. This was having a huge effect on morale and job ability.
“Our officers are quitting due to burnout,” Detective Stacey Lear said, who admitted to working 273 hours of overtime the previous year. “We are forced to choose between being active parents to our children or working 60 to 80 hours per week.”
I’m sure the burnout problem within the police force has only gotten worse in the 8 months since the Missoulian published that story, leading to more staffing issues in the department.
In fact, it has...as the Missoulian recently reported:
“Police Chief Mike Brady said he is authorized to have 109 sworn officers, which is three more positions than last year, but still has five vacancies in his department. He also has five people who are in various training programs, are injured or out due to FMLA matters, so the actual number of assigned officers is 99.”
And this at a time when the city is asking more from its police officers than ever before:
“Brady also mentioned that the annexation of the area near the Missoula International Airport has increased calls for service to his department, estimating they’re on track to reach 1,300, which is up from the 1,000 calls he had anticipated.”
Many of the calls the police get are from businesses located near the Pov. We’ve been hearing these stories since last August.
Back then, drug needles were littering Westside neighborhoods. Many living in the area blamed the Pov for these problems.
“One woman asked why the city hasn’t followed through with promises not to let the neighborhood be affected when the Poverello Center relocated to West Broadway a few years ago.
The problem isn’t only clients of the homeless shelter, as the epidemic of drug use affects a far larger group. But the Poverello is certainly part of the problem, several neighbors and nearby business owners said.”
These problems are nothing new.
The Pov cost $5 million to build its new center. It opened in December 2014 and by February 2015 local residents had had enough.
“In the few months since the shelter opened, [Brian] Dirnberger has called Missoula police about people loitering, public drug use, public intoxication and domestic disturbances, all of which have affected his business.”
The problems from five years ago never went away. Today the same issues exist around the Poverello Center.
Business owners around the Pov are upset about this, so much so that they’re asking the City Council to do something.
A couple weeks ago “residents told City Council stories of finding numerous needles, cars being broken into, bikes being stolen, people shooting up in public, loitering, human feces by bedroom windows and fears to let their children play in the parks or ride their bikes.”
All of these problems are coming about because Missoula welcomes drug addicts and alcoholics into its community from all over the country, enabling their addictions with free food and free beds for up to 60 days.
Another problem is that the County Attorney has a soft approach to the crimes perpetrated by these addicts, which means even if they are arrested, they’ll typically be back on the street in a few hours.
Let’s return to the jail aspect of this story to examine that.
Misosula’s Options for its Drunks and Addicts
The Missoula jail employs 110 detention workers and another 22 staff that do cooking, office and library work.
I feel most of those staff members are frustrated by the amount of transient drunks and addicts they have to deal with.
Thankfully, we know we have lots of options for these addicts.
One thing we do know is that the 2017 Legislature put $400,000 towards “supportive housing programs targeting offenders” and that “Missoula County, Ravalli County and the City of Billings are piloting programs with services including housing assistance, landlord mitigation funding, and placement services.”
It’s clear to many that jail should be a last resort for many offenders, especially our non-violent drug offenders that often have more problems with addiction than with crime.
Thankfully, the Montana DOC gives communities plenty of options to keep people out of jail.
In Missoula we have the Missoula Assessment and Sanction Center (MASC), which is a joint venture between the Montana DOC and the Missoula jail. The center has 144 beds for men and aims to “determine the most appropriate placement for offenders through clear, accurate and impartial assessments” as a way to keep those men out of prison. Placement is determined through “mental health, substance use disorder and sex offender assessments and counseling, as needed.”
In addition to that we have the enough pre-release centers around the state to house 894 men and women, with stays averaging 200 days. Two programs within the pre-release model help offenders - the transitional living program and the enhanced supervision program. The latter is especially good for those with addiction issues.
And that’s not all:
- In Billings they have Passages, which center that can serve 112 women that have addiction issues.
- Butte has Connections Corrections, which serves 138 men in the same capacity.
- Warm Springs has Warm Springs Addiction Treatment and Change, which can serve 130 men.
- Boulder’s Elkhorn Treatment Center serves 51 women.
- Lewistown’s Nexus Treatment Center serves 82 men.
- Anaconda has a program called START that can house 138 men that have had problems with their pre-release centers, but who don’t really need to go to prison.
So as you can see, we have plenty of options around the state to keep people out of prison, and hopefully we can expand some of those to keep people out of jail.
In addition to that, we have parole options for those getting out of prison and trying to reenter society.
Here in Missoula the Probation and Parole Division of the Montana DOC has a caseload that ranges from 70 to 95 people.
That’s actually low - the Kalispell/Polson region has anywhere from 85 to 110 cases going on at any given time.
We’re going to have to if we want to save space in our jails for the more serious crimes, and it’ll also save a lot of money in the long run.
I think the problems with drunks and druggies will only get worse in Missoula before it gets better.
Currently, as a community we enable those addicts and their lifestyle...and then we wonder why we have so many problems.
Our jail is overflowing because of this, our police are suffering record amounts of burnout, and businesses are at their wit’s end.
We do know that someone is profiting off the problem, however, or else the problem simply would not exist. (The Pov reported $4 million in revenue last year, and $6 million in total assets. They spent a total of $2.6 million feeding people, many of whom don’t ever want to change and only want to stay drunk and addicted as long as they can).
Like I said, I don’t expect things to get better anytime soon.
If you want to learn more about these issues, I would encourage you to look at the 64-page biennial report that the Montana Department of Corrections put out this year.
Also, my 2016 article on the Missoula jail has lots of information and statistics that were taken from the 115-page report the City of Missoula commissioned to study the jail problems.