Bills to house youths and adults at Pine Hills fail

In order to maximize the use of state facilities, the 2015 Montana State Legislature authorized sending young adult offenders who fit a very narrow profile to Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City.

But putting adults under the same roof as minors didn’t sit well with state auditors. A legislative audit showed that committing offenders over the age of 18 to a youth facility was not allowed under state law. Such an arrangement does not violate federal regulations.

State Rep. Ken Holmlund, R-Miles City, thought putting young adults at Pine Hills “was a win-win situation” so he sponsored one bill in the 2017 legislature to allow offenders up to 20 years of age to be sent to Pine Hill, and another to allow young adults to be sent to Pine Hills but kept completely separate from youth offenders, which is currently being done.

Both bills were tabled in committee, the legislative equivalent of killing a bill.

Pine Hills Superintendent Steve Ray, who spoke in favor of the bills before a house committee, was disappointed by their failure. “The concepts we have in place are really working.”

Ray said adults have come in without having graduated from high school, and earned a diploma. 

The vocational training program has gone well and they have had adults leave Pine Hills and obtain jobs because of their training.

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

Pine Hills has a history of operating successful treatment programs, Holmlund said.

“Pine Hills has tremendous programs,” Holmlund said, noting that some offenders, if they are sent to Pine Hills when they are 17, are not at the facility long enough to complete the programs. Allowing longer committals for older offenders would let those older teens finish the vocational and educational programs that Pine Hills has had such success with.

Pine Hills can accommodate 120 youth offenders and currently houses about 40. They have a high staff-to-youth ratio because Pine Hills must provide an accredited high school program in addition to the correctional programs. As a result, the 2015 legislature approved sending young adults to Pine Hills, thinking that using the space and utlizing the programs made sense.

Currently, there is a shortage of space for adult offenders in Montana. The young adults sent to Pine Hills are low-risk offenders age 25 or under who were mostly being held in county jails because there is no space at the adult prison in Deer Lodge.

Because state law says the legislature should authorize the best use of state facilities, Holmlund said his bills would have “saved the state millions of dollars.” As of this week, there are 22 adult offenders and 42 youth offenders currently being treated and educated at Pine Hills.

Although all of the speakers from the Department of Corrections spoke in favor of the bills at legislative hearings, they failed by close committee votes.

According to Ray, the young adult program at Pine Hills is kept separate from the youth program, and the two groups of offenders never come into contact. If adults are moving between buildings on the campus, the youth are held until the adults are gone, he said.

During the committee hearing for HB438, 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 wrote in response to questions from the Star. “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.”

Wodnick said she hopes the bills will be resurrected.

“While we did not concur with the legislative audit finding, we proposed a bill asking the 2017 Legislature to give the department the clear authority to manage our facilities in accordance with our population needs,” she wrote. “At the session’s halfway mark, we remain hopeful that the legislature will approve the changes necessary to appease the legislative auditors.”