Missoula law enforcement absorbing cuts to mental health care services

Posted at 5:39 PM, May 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 14:52:30-04

MISSOULA – Mental health services and law enforcement work might seem to be very different sectors in our community but, their work is actually deeply interconnected.

State budget cuts have eroded services for them, at the same time the Missoula County sheriff says it should be the other way around.

The Missoula County Detention Center is often overcrowded with people who shouldn’t even be there — people with mental health and substance use issues.

The network of services that support at-risk populations who live with mental or behavioral health issues work hand-in-hand with jail diversion efforts. The reduction of community-based mental health care resources in the area chips away at the efforts of the 2014 Missoula County Jail Diversion Plan.

This plan was written by a slough of community partners trying to direct non-violent, low-risk offenders with mental health or substance use issues into more appropriate in-community treatments.

“One of the things that we learned about in the jail diversion plan, in the community’s plan, is that our community is lacking services. Services need to be expanded, and these state cuts are hindering our ability to do that,” Missoula County Sheriff TJ McDermott.

“Our jail is overcrowded. We have people that are suffering from substance abuse issues, people that have mental health issues, sometimes in mental health crises, there’s really no other place for them in the jail,” she added.

These services maintain this population in their home and communities and provide support if they end up in a crisis to keep them out of jail.

“These cuts drastically affect the communities’ ability to have case workers and treatment courts, and mental health facilities and workers that are available to meet the needs that we have, that are increasing as we grow as a community,” McDermott said.

In a presentation to the Missoula County commissioners, this March about the impact of the state cuts, Detention Center commander Jason Kowalski said the jail deals with a high population of inmates needing mental health care. Roughly 70 percent are taking a medication to manage a mental illness.

“That is exactly who we are trying to divert from the jail, is these people who don’t necessarily need to be here, who have a problem in their life that can be settled with case management or some kind of community service in the mental health realm,” Kowalski said.

“So, we are expecting that we are going to increase our population with mental health individuals that really should be better served in our community but, without that service, they will end up in jail,” Kowalski added.

Kowalski emphasizes that the jail is not a treatment center. They have services to help some people cope with incarceration, but they are not equipped to provide comprehensive treatment, he said.

The detention center has 396 beds, but often deals with overcrowding and need to accommodate dozens more than that. Kowalski says they’ve been overcrowded since 2010, which drives up costs for basic needs for inmates food and clothing. They work with about a $14 million budget, which was cut by 4% overall in 2017.

The Montana Department of Corrections adjusted their budget to meet the demands of the state budget cuts by capping the daily rate they would pay to county detention centers for holding state inmates every day. Payment caps for state inmates were passed by the legislature in both the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions.

The 2017 session cut was directed at the Missoula Assessment and Sanctions Center unit that averages 142 inmates per day. The program screens all state inmates for proper placement considering health needs.

This state-run wing of the county jail has been in operation for about 20 years and the rate per head, per day, was capped at $83.28, which is the FY 2016 rate.

The detention center lost almost $370,000 in revenue in 2017, which is a slightly greater loss than the detention center was already facing in 2016.

The 2015 legislature implemented a payment cap that affects about 30 to 40 inmates in the Missoula County detention center on any given day. These are the Montana Department of Corrections inmates who are housed in the county jail due to a state contract that reserves a guaranteed number of beds.

This cap is causing a revenue loss of $200,000 and when all of the numbers are totaled up, this is a revenue loss of almost $570,000 annually.

Kowalski says they will provide quality service to inmates no matter what, but that they are constantly looking for ways to reduce operating costs or purchase more affordable supplies.

He says the full impact of the cuts to community mental health services is not yet realized, coupled with more strain on the jail due to direct revenue losses. Jail staff are familiar with this population..and say they are trying to move forward.

“That’s the individual that is going to walk out the door when they are released and be back within a day or two, or even sometimes it’s five hours and they are already contacted with law enforcement, and the only answer at that point is to bring them back to jail and it starts all over again,” Kowalski said.

“So, that’s the frustrating part of working in a jail, seeing these problems first hand, and that’s where the impacts are really going to happen. We’re making such good progress that it seems we are going backwards. We shouldn’t be. We should be trying to move forward,” Kowalski concluded.

Reporting by Augusta McDonnell for MTN News