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'This is a problem': Billings city representatives explain need for jail expansion, systematic changes

Inside of the Yellowstone County Detention Facility
Posted at 7:40 PM, Apr 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-28 21:40:28-04

BILLINGS — 430—that's the approximate number of inmates the Yellowstone County Detention Facility can officially hold. But lately, it's been beyond full, prompting city representatives to request a study to assess the city and county's needs.

"I think there's no doubt that we need to study the issue. The jail was built for 434 people. It regularly has roughly 550. That's not an occasional problem, that's a consistent problem. So it seems that we need more jail space, but there are lots of other problems in the system. The criminal justice system is overtaxed at every level," said Billings Mayor Bill Cole on Friday. "Not enough prosecutors, not enough public defenders, judges, you name it. So the jail is just one part of a very complicated system. But it seems to me that we do need to at least work hard to figure out what can be done to solve all these problems. But first and foremost, the top priority for me will be expanded jail space."

Billings Mayor Bill Cole
Billings Mayor Bill Cole

Mayor Cole stated while there are many problems to address, the jail's space is his first priority, which is why he spear-headed the letter with city council members to Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder and Yellowstone County Commissioners written on April 13, requesting a jail needs assessment.

"This is a problem that's been out there for a while. And it's no secret everybody has known about it, but it is starting to have a severe impact on the morale of our officers. We're also at a good place with the passage of the public safety bill levy. We have more officers on the street. The good news is that our crime metrics have actually declined, or at least stabilized in the last year or two," Cole said. "So this is a good time, but I don't think the problem of crime is going to go away."

Cole explained there are many layers to the crime issue in Yellowstone County. He states domestic violence is a growing problem.

"In addition to substance abuse and mental health challenges, what we're seeing is that a very large portion of what drives our police response is domestic abuse. That's partner on partner, but also children," Cole said. "When children are affected by crime, they become part of a vicious cycle that can continue from generation to generation. So it's really important that we try to protect our children, and by doing so, we'll be able to bring crime rates down. Not just today, but tomorrow and for years to come."

And with a full jail, it's difficult to find space for more inmates.

"(Officers are) not taking people to jail that they think they should," Cole said. "But it is true that if somebody is picked up on a violent offense and needs to be in jail, the Sheriff and the county will always make sure there’s room in the jail."

According to the mayor, the city wants to work together with the county to tackle the issues.

"There's no magic button. It's going to take a lot of time. But we've got to start down this path together," Cole said. "We need to take a collective approach and figure out what those best options are together."

And Mayor Cole believes the first step is a jail needs assessment to take a data-driven approach.

"The letter that I sent to the county commissioners makes it clear that we want to be good partners. We want to put our taxpayer's money where our mouth is and help in solving this problem. It's all about getting the right data and making sure that we understand the problem so we can develop good, workable solutions," Cole said. "Although I signed the letter, this was a collective effort by our city council and approved unanimously by our city council, because they are united in wanting to address these problems."

And while Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund agrees there are many problems to address, he stated as of now, he is unaware of whether the commissioners will be in favor of a jail needs assessment.

"While an expansion would be helpful, it's not going to solve all of our problems. I'm not opposed to a jail expansion down the road. But there are many, many other issues right now down at the facility," Ostlund said on Friday. "If you're out in the country, and you have four flat tires on your car, putting your spare on won't get you to town. Building more beds won't get us a better facility unless we fix all of the problems with moving those inmates through the system."

John Ostlund, Yellowstone County Commissioner
John Ostlund, Yellowstone County Commissioner

Ostlund explained he believes there are an array of problems at the jail, but the main issue is with the court system itself.

"None of these prisoners really should be in the jail. They should be either adjudicated and let out with a sentence, or sent off to dialog. And then we've got a lot of other issues that lead to the capacity issues in the jail," Ostlund said. "One of them is the Department of Corrections prisoners. They sit in our jail for months and months before they get transferred up to the Department of Corrections. So those two alone create a block in the transfer of prisoners out of the jail and take up available space. So just building additional beds without fixing some of the other problems is not going to work. You know, we have to look at this more holistically and we have to take a look and see how we move prisoners through the process, how we get D.O.C. inmates transferred up to the prison."

Ostlund provided MTN News with the current jail roster from the Yellowstone County Detention Facility and explained some of the pages consisted of inmates that have been at the jail for years.

"The first eight pages of them are inmates that have been in there for over two years," Ostlund said while holding the roster.

And a shortage of staff at the jail isn't helping.

"We're actually 15 to 21 detention officers short. We're short all the time, which works all the rest on an overtime basis. So having to add another 7 to 15 officers is going to make the shortfall bigger," Ostlund said. "That's another part of the process that desperately needs to be fixed."

Yellowstone County Detention Facility
Yellowstone County Detention Facility

Ostlund is also concerned about the cost of an expansion. He states the last expansion still has a seven million dollar bill awaiting payment.

"We have concerns about the cost because the projected cost for a 250-bed expansion would be 45 million. That would take about 30 mills. The county operates on mill levies. And that's a pretty healthy tax increase," Ostlund said. "You have to remember a lot of our community is on a fixed income. And so when you raise those taxes through a vote, they've got to give up something else. So we are very concerned about the cost and how we're going to pay for it."

Ostlund explained the city is also looking into a misdemeanor holding facility to assist with the overcrowded jail.

"The city has the ability to build a misdemeanor hold, which would take care of most of the downtown problem. And we threw that out at our discussion yesterday to see if the city does actually have any interest in, you know, building," Ostlund said. "They could participate in making the solution work. And we would be glad to have their help."

Only time will tell if this study will be approved by the county representatives.

To learn more about the proposed study from city representatives, click here.

"It's not just trying to be reactive. We want to be more proactive, preventing crime before it occurs," Mayor Cole said. "We can do better and we are going to do better. We want to do better. And the city council is committed to that."

Full letter from city representatives:

Page one of letter
Page one of letter
Page two of letter
Page two of letter