County jails farm out juvenile offenders 

Crime doesn’t pay, but it sure does cost—$350 a day, to be precise. To keep those costs down, Ravalli County has begun sending its errant children to Missoula to be jailed.

Last week, with Ravalli County commissioners looking for ways to bring the budget in line with revenues, Chief Probation Officer Carol Stratemeyer made the decision to keep the juvenile section of the county jail open only when it’s cost-effective to do so. This means that there must be at least three juveniles incarcerated at any one time to keep the jail from being a loss leader. Western Montana’s jailed juvenile problem began several years ago, before counties began building more space for kids. At one time, says Stratemeyer, there were only 12 jail beds for juveniles in all of western Montana, from Lincoln County to Ravalli County. Probation officers jockeyed constantly for position, moving their incarcerated kids from county to county in search of a place to house them overnight, or even for days at a time.

By the late 1990s, a mini-building boom in the juvenile jail business had produced a glut of beds, with 12 in Kalispell, four in Troy, 23 in Missoula and four in Hamilton. “Which was wonderful because it really expanded our options,” says Stratemeyer.

When the Ravalli County juvenile jail opened on July 1, 1998, the four beds were almost always filled with either local kids or—even better for the taxpayers—with out-of-county kids. Counties that sent their kids to Hamilton also sent $200 a day to Ravalli County to house them. That price was cheaper than Troy, which at the time was charging $250 a day for a bed in its juvenile jail, or Missoula, which charged other counties $265 a day to house out-of-county juveniles. “So we were a pretty good value,” says Stratemeyer.

But all those new beds also produced a perverse kind of supply-and-demand system. With so many new beds in western Montana, the price for housing an out-of-county juvenile began to drop.

This year, for instance, Missoula County lowered its per-day cost of holding out-of-county juveniles to $140 a day. Because it costs $350 a day to keep the Hamilton juvenile jail open, Stratemeyer reasons that it’s cheaper to send Ravalli County kids to Missoula to be jailed than to keep them at home.

The seven people who staffed the jail were part time and on-call, and almost always had work, since there are usually one or two kids in jail at any given time. The staffers are still part time and on-call, but there won’t be any work for them unless there are at least three kids in jail at the same time.

Juvenile offenders shouldn’t get too smug about all this moving about, Stratemeyer says. “I don’t want these kids to get the idea they’re not going to jail,” she says. “They are going to jail, just not in Hamilton.”

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