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No room at the jail: Overcrowding has no easy solutions at Yellowstone County jail

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Posted at 5:47 PM, Oct 17, 2022

BILLINGS — At the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, you’ll find a challenging situation. Overcrowding has been a problem for years, and Billings police officers have been forced to release arrested criminals because there’s simply no room. And both county and city officials say they see no easy short-term solutions.

It’s an issue that’s beyond complex, with a jail bursting at its seams.

“What we’re seeing is a total capacity issue,” said Billings Police Chief Rich St. John.

It’s a problem fueled by rising crime.

“We started seeing an increase in our violent crime specifically going back maybe four or five years ago,” St. John said.

Both Billings police and the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office agree jail overcrowding is one of the biggest issues plaguing the county.

The jail is at 130% capacity. Just two weeks ago, 570 inmates were being housed, there even though it’s only meant to hold 430.

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“The issue with the jail, although it’s not 100% the sheriff’s office issue, is problematic for the city of Billings and it’s problematic for the police department in particular,” said St. John.

It’s problematic because of a lack of space, which means some suspects are being let go, according to law enforcement. For example, from Oct. 1-12, Billings police say 35 people arrested on warrants were caught and released rather than placed behind bars.

All were non-violent offenders, but that’s still concerning for law enforcement.

“When you release them, people don’t quit committing crimes, and so you start taking on new inmates and new people being brought into the facility till you fill it up again,” said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder.

At one point at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 inmates were released when the virus began to spread inside the jail. Many reoffended, and are already now back behind bars.

“This jail is much too small for a community this size, so adding capacity is a must,” St. John said.

St. John acknowledges a new jail won’t solve this problem on its own. Both he and Linder say part of the problem also stems from exactly who is being held at the jail.

“Where do these people belong? A lot of them have mental health issues, drug addiction co-occurring. They’re not violent but do they really belong in a jail? You know, there’s other places for them, whether it be treatment,” said Linder.

Billings also receives a disproportionate number of Montana Department of Corrections inmates from the state.

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“Our local citizens basically subsidize what it costs to house an inmate in the jail, a state inmate,” Linder said.

Then there are staffing challenges. While a new or expanded jail would help, the county already has 13 positions it can’t fill.

“If you build on to the jail, even if you built on one more unit, like we did with the women’s unit, you’re looking between a dozen and 15 employees to staff that 24/7, 365,” said Linder.

A new jail is also expensive. In 2015, Yellowstone County voters shot down a mill levy that would have expanded and updated the jail. County Commissioner John Ostlund believes there’s little appetite among taxpayers for a costly jail expansion despite the rising crime rate.

“We’re in the middle of a recession, interest rates are going up. Disposable cash for most people with four-dollar gas is about gone. You have a lot of people on a fixed income, it won’t be an easy threshold to sell this to the voters,” said Ostlund.

For now, it’s a problem without a clear solution and one St. John and Linder say starts with the entire justice system.

“If we can’t get people adjudicated because we’re short on defense attorneys, or we’re short of prosecutors, or maybe the courts are tied up and we just can’t get them through, we’ll never ever get back to an even keel,” Linder said.