Rural Jail Reform in Big Sky Country


Legislators at a session of the Rural Jail Reform in Big Sky Country Site Visit.


Small counties with populations under 250,000 have driven overall jail growth since 1970. Rural jails have the highest rates of growth in pretrial detention in the country.

Limited resources in these small counties can create situations where jail may be the best, and possibly only, option for people in mental health crisis or those who have other behavioral health issues that that lead to contact with the justice system.

In May, a group of 16 legislators from 13 states took part in the Rural Jail Reform in Big Sky Country Site Visit in Missoula, Mont. The visit was planned and carried out through an NCSL partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The meeting provided information to legislators about challenges faced by jails and other criminal justice stakeholders in small and rural counties and showcased Missoula County’s collaborative. problem-solving approach to local justice reform.

Marc Levin, vice president of criminal justice for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime, kicked off the meeting with a national overview of what policy levers are driving rural and small jail population growth and what states can do to support localities addressing these issues.

The group then learned about the current national movement to safely reduce over-incarceration in local jails from Laurie R. Garduque, director of justice reform at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Missoula County has received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to help implement reforms to safely reduce its jail population with the goals of reducing the number of short-term jail admissions; promoting social justice by addressing racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities; and increasing behavioral health treatment services for justice-involved people. Missoula County Commissioner Nicole Rowley talked about the county’s progress towards these goals and the importance of collaboration.

In the afternoon, the group had the opportunity to tour the Missoula County Detention Facility and talk to key jail staff about the issue of overcrowding and recent reform efforts.

Legislators participate in the Montana site visit. On the second day of the meeting, attendees learned more about the intersection of the health and criminal justice systems. The day started with an overview from Missoula County Grants Administrator Erin Kautz about the increasing intersection between health and justice systems, with a particular focus on the collaborative approach used by the local prosecutor and public defender when interacting with individuals during commitment and competency proceedings.

The group then had the opportunity to meet with Western Montana Mental Health Center (WMMHC) CEO Levi Anderson to learn about the organization’s continuum of services, including services for justice-involved individuals, and the organization’s regional structure. Attendees toured the Missoula WMMHC campus. This included Share House, a therapeutic group home with intensive recovery programming offering a supportive living environment, case management and assistance in enhancing living skills for clients with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Other tour highlights included Recovery Center Missoula, adult outpatient addiction services, the drop-in center and day treatment area, the children and families programming center, and the on-site pharmacy.

Attendees then learned about culturally responsive health and criminal defense services at the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center. Attendees toured the health center and learned about Urban Indian Health Programs and their connection to Indian Health Services (IHS). The center provides on-site primary care, mental health and substance abuse services and attendees were able to meet with health care providers. Executive Director D’Shane Barnett also shared information about the center’s special programs for justice-involved individuals, including jail-based programming.

In addition to the tour, attendees heard from Ann Miller, the managing attorney of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Defender’s Office. Miller talked about her office’s holistic, client-centered approach to criminal defense and civil justice in both tribal and state courts. She also shared the success of the Flathead Reservation Reentry Program, which also uses a holistic approach to helping clients succeed.

On the final day of the meeting, attendees heard a panel of local housing experts explain how shortages of affordable and supportive housing can affect the number of individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system. One of the topics of conversation was how to find housing and supportive services for individuals who are frequent users of health care, criminal justice, and homeless response systems. The meeting wrapped up with a session about jail usage and state legislative roles in planning reforms. The session focused heavily on the use of data and state level policy options to support local systems changes.

Additional resources and meeting information can be found below.

Meeting Resources

NCSL Resources

State and Other Resources