Suspects turned away from Mont. jail amidst overcrowding, understaffing
Officials said Billings has outgrown its jail throughout the past decade; that issue has been exacerbated by a chronic lack of detention officers to staff
By Paul Hamby
Billings Gazette, Mont.
BILLINGS, Mont. — Overcrowding at the largest jail in Montana has forced the facility's commanders to turn away hundreds of people arrested in Billings over the past year.
The immediate release of those brought to Yellowstone County Detention Facility either on multiple outstanding warrants or charged with new offenses caused backlash from Billings residents, and has prompted the Billings Police Department to begin tracking the number of those arrested only to be denied being placed into custody at that jail.
"Remanding on lesser offenses has a direct impact on major crimes," wrote BPD Detective Jeff Chartier in a statement to the Gazette.
Chartier is also president of the Billings Police Officers Affiliate for the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
"Arresting at the bottom reduces crime at the top. As a community accepts and allows lower offenses to multiply, the result is more serious crime," he said.
As of mid-July of this year, according to data provided by the department, BPD has served 1,325 warrants; 338 were felony warrants, 862 were misdemeanor and 125 were for traffic offenses. During that time, BPD Lt. Matt Lennick said there were 155 documented instances where an officer attempted to make an arrest only for the jail to refuse to remand the suspect.
"If someone is turned away from the jail they are almost always issued a notice to appear," he said.
In late September 2022, BPD started tracking when a suspect brought to the jail was turned away. From then until the end of the year, this occurred 139 times.
"In the 1990s, there were far fewer officers working the streets of Billings," said Chartier, who has been with BPD for nearly three decades. "However, those officers had the ability to remand on all offenses."
Over the past decade, Chartier said, Billings has outgrown its jail. That has been exacerbated by a chronic lack of detention officers to staff YCDF. BPD officers have now been "forced to transition into a practice of allowing suspects to walk away when the offense at hand required an arrest," Chartier said.
"In addition, numerous suspects were released immediately after being arrested and processed. As a result, recidivism and habitual failure to appear in court became commonplace," he said.
Chartier praised the command staff at YCDF, who over the past summer have made an effort to accept as many defendants into the jail as possible.
With the current jail roster consistently hovering at around 150 people over capacity, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said YCDF commanders have little choice but to accept those who are arrested based on individual circumstances. Arrests made by county deputies, Montana Highway Patrol and agencies in nearby counties have also been turned away.
"It goes without saying that anyone who would be considered a threat to public safety at the time of arrest will be accepted into the jail," Linder said in an email to the Gazette.
"The same goes for violent people," he added. "However, there are several people out there who have numerous warrants for everything from shoplifting to failure to appear, and even for some drug offenses. If we have room, we will accept them. If we are near the point where we need to save a few beds for violent offenders, or public threats, that is where we have to draw a line."
The vast majority of those in custody are currently awaiting proceedings in Yellowstone County District Court, however, the jail also houses Montana Department of Corrections and federal inmates.
As of Friday morning, a handful of inmates had been in custody at YCDF for well over two years. Linder, along with city and county officials, is not certain what a solution could be. Although additions to the 434-bed facility could help, the jail is currently facing a staffing shortage of over a dozen detention officers.
"We are looking at some options such as temporary or short-term housing to help clean up warrants, but that would require a substantial investment," Linder said. "Regardless of what we do, we still need to be able to staff any additional space and that seems to be our biggest challenge right now."
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