Pine Hills youth facility still housing adult offenders

By: 
Amorette Allison
Star Staff Writer

On one hand, there’s the Montana state law that prohibits incarcerating juveniles and adults in the same facility. On the other, there’s the 2015 legislative decree mandating that state agencies use state facilities as efficiently as possible.

Faced with a conflict between a state law and a legislative mandate, and lacking a solution from the Montana legislature, state Department of Corrections officials will continue to house young adult offenders with juvenile offenders at the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City.

Corrections officials, because the juvenile offenders are separated from the adults at all times, have decided to err on the side of economy after a bill failed in the Legislature this year to legalize the practice.

“The taxpayers expect us to be efficient with the state’s money,” said Pine Hills Superintendent Steve Rey, noting that placing the young adults at Pine Hills is an efficient use of the large facility. 

When interviewed by the Star, Rey made it very clear that the youth programs and the program for young adults are run as “two distinct programs.” 

The facility, built to house 120 residents, currently has less than 40 male youths under age 18 in custody. Additional beds are filled by about 20 male adults ages 18-25 who meet strict criteria, including not being convicted of a violent crime.

And even more eligible young-adult offenders could be moved to Pine Hills as the state attempts to reduce the population in county jails from the current 420 down to 250. Pine Hills provides education programs, and drug and behavioral treatment programs, that could benefit young adult offenders, but are not offered in county jails, Rey said. 

“They are an incredibly hard group to treat, and all of them need treatment,” Rey said, referring to the young-adult offenders.

Great pains are taken by Pine Hills staff members to assure that youth offenders and adult offenders never interact.

According to Jeff Holland, quality assurance officer at Pine Hills, there is complete “programmatic separation” meaning that while young adults can work on obtaining a high school degree or study in one of the vocational programs offered at Pine Hills, at no time are the two groups ever in the same place at the same time.

Extra fences were constructed on the Pine Hills campus to facilitate separation and great care is taken to assure that the older offenders are never even seen by the younger residents. An outside auditor from Texas came to observe the facility recently, said Ray, and found Pine Hills was “100 percent compliant” in separating the two populations.

So why the available beds?

Jeff Holland said there are numerous reasons for the sharp decrease in juvenile offenders, ranging from lower birth rates to community programs that help youths before they reach the stage where Pine Hills becomes the only option.

Of the 3,000 or so young male offenders supervised by the state, “less than one percent are at Pine Hills,” Holland said.

During the committee hearing on House Bill 438, which would have permitted housing the adults at Pine Hills, Loraine Wodnick, interim director of the Montana Department of Corrections, testified that “preliminary results show that this new program is working great” and does not compromise the safety or security of the youth offenders.

“The legislative auditor last year took exception to the department’s decision to house young adult offenders at Pine Hills in a separate, specialized program within the facility that focuses on education and treatment,” Wodnik said in a written statement.

“The program’s goal is to keep these young men from going deeper into the corrections system. A considerable body of research indicates that the brains of young adults don’t fully mature until age 25 and that treatment programs for this age group must take this immaturity into consideration. The department believes this to be consistent with our mandate to operate our facilities at maximum efficiency,” she continued.

State Rep. Ken Holmlund (R-Miles City), who sponsored the bill to allow young adults and youths to be housed as they are at Pine Hills, said he’s not sure why neither version of the bill made it out of committee.

“I will carry it again” at the next legislature, he said. One version of the bill did contain a line that said the Department of Corrections could change the facility’s use without legislative approval. That line was removed, Holmlund said, “but the damage was done.”

Holmlund said the most-recent census at Pine Hills showed 33 youths and 22 young adults in residence. It would be possible through further remodeling of the facility to add an additional 48 adults.

Corrections officials stressed that the adults that could be moved to Pine Hills are low-risk, nonviolent offenders, most of whom were being held in county jails that do not have educational or vocational facilities or have the capacity to treat offenders for drug, behavioral or other problems.

They have not been placed in the adult men’s prison at Deer Lodge because of over-crowding there and an unwillingness to expose younger inmates to the older adult population.

Additionally, Pine Hills has vocational and job-training programs ranging from construction to culinary programs that have led to Pine Hills graduates being successfully employed as soon as they leave Pine Hills.

The good work Pine Hills does “is well-recognized by the Legislature,” Holmlund said, but noted the facility is not a priority in the state capital.

(Contact Amorette Allison at 406-234-0450 or mcreporter@midrivers.com.)

 

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