Missoula jail diversion, behavioral health efforts move the dial

MISSOULA – Efforts to reduce overcrowding at the Missoula County Detention Center and divert offenders to other resources have shown progress in recent years, saving taxpayers money and providing relief to low-level offenders, said the county.

The Jail Diversion Master Plan was written and adopted in 2016 and included approximately 40 recommendations in various categories, such as pre-sentence and behavioral health.

Efforts in the latter category have had measurable impacts, according to Chelsea Wittmann, the county’s justice and safety challenges coordinator.

“The most impressive thing about the progress we have made since 2016 is that much of it was due to the work of the grid,” Wittmann said. “When offices come together, lasting and mutually beneficial changes happen.”

The average length of stay for a defendant in the county jail is around 28 days, while the daily jail population hovers around 184, a number that has remained relatively constant in recent years.

But in 2021, the county, courts and law enforcement agreed not to detain people who have been charged with a nonviolent crime but not convicted, a move that effectively altered the prison population.

Only non-violent crimes, such as resisting arrest, multiple DUI arrests, and other extreme circumstances, are the exception. The change was largely due to the pandemic, and without it, Wittmann said the jail would have become “uselessly overcrowded.”

“The important thing is that the makeup of our jail has changed dramatically,” he said. “Our jail right now is largely a felony detention center. We have very few misdemeanors on hold for any length of time. It keeps our inmate population low and follows best practices for who should stay in regional jails.”

Efforts to divert criminals from jail altogether have become a top priority. On that front, Wittmann said, a number of public services have launched, while others will come online next year.

The new programs include the Crisis Intervention Team at the Missoula Police Department and the Mobile Support Team at the Missoula Fire Department. The latter serves as the first line of contact for a person experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

Wittmann said both programs benefit the criminal justice system by diverting people in crisis from jail or the ER to other services. Other programs, like a crisis reception center at Western Montana Mental Health, and a navigation center in the Trinity apartment project, will soon join the programs.

“A night in jail costs about $140 and an emergency room visit is much more expensive,” Wittmann said. “When we talk about things like a crisis reception center, not only is that an appropriate clinical diversion from a care standpoint, but it also represents a tremendous cost savings for our community.”

According to the latest county report, people who are chronically intoxicated make up about 10% of the homeless population, but consume nearly 50% of homeless resources.

In 2012, St. Patrick Hospital estimated its charity care costs at about $4 million annually. Community Medical Center calculated similar cots.

The chronically intoxicated also reduce the availability of the police and other local services. The crisis reception center is expected to help on that front and was identified as a local service gap that needs to be filled.

“If someone is under the influence of any substance where we can’t do a proper mental health evaluation, those people are taken to the emergency room or possibly jail. Those are our only options, but they are not the best options,” Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said. “With a crisis reception center, they can come back to themselves and come out and meet someone who helps them take the next step.”

Along with current and emerging programs, various drug courts have also played a role in diverting offenders from jail. Such courts include the Veterans Court, the Juvenile Court, and the ROAD Court, among several others.

Citing one example, Wittmann said that between 2019 and 2021, ROAD Court saved 554 days in prison or about $554,000 in prison costs.

“Referral courts and treatment courts show a return on investment of about $1.50 to $2.21 for every $1 spent,” Wittmann said. “A long-term system savings on that is around $3,000 to $13,000 per participant if we can treat that person and keep them out of jail.”

Those who end up in jail also receive help that wasn’t necessarily available before. Inmates are now provided with electronic tables to conduct education and access medical care.

Wittmann said that also resulted from the pandemic and has had positive impacts.

“It allowed inmates to meet with counselors in their own cells and on their own time to access mental health resources that weren’t available in the jail at the time,” he said. “It also helped with continuity of care when those people were released from jail.”

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