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Missoula County is at the forefront to keep people out of overcrowded jails

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One Western Montana county is at the forefront of a program to keep people out of jail at a time when jails across the state are experiencing overcrowding.

It's called the jail diversion program.

Missoula County Sheriff TJ McDermott said that the detention center is overcrowded. But 40 percent of inmates in the jail are classified as non-violent and non-dangerous, so instead of spending millions of dollars on expanding the jail, the county is working on a diversion plan to rehabilitate inmates and keep them out of prison.

McDermott said the county hired a jail administrator to monitor the daily Missoula jail population and find out which inmates are non-violent and/or suffering from mental illness or substance abuse issues.

McDermott said that they are working on getting these people out of jail and moving them intro treatment programs, such as a sobriety program or the option of house arrest. The county seeks to expand mental health services to make this possible.

"We'll always have a jail. We'll always have a place for violent criminals who need to be locked up for public safety. But that data really suggests that we can do better with and about 40 percent of our population and get these people rehabilitated and on with their life and not stuck in this cycle," said McDermott.

McDermott said rehabilitation programs are inexpensive compared to the cost of jail, and the county is looking to create a 24 hour mental health crisis facility with a law enforcement drop-off and a detox center. These citizens also need help finding housing, but he said that this will take a lot of community support to make this happen.

The ACLU of Montana is among the groups in support of the plan. Their public statement included: "The suggested solutions will protect public safety, will save money for Missoula taxpayers and will make our criminal justice system more just for both the innocent and those who are found guilty."

Click here to learn more about the Missoula County jail diversion program, which first launched in 2015.

In nearby Lake County, the sheriff's office is also experiencing overcrowding and has started publishing lists of people who were cited and let go due to lack of space.

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