HELENA — A bill that would allow adults to be housed with youth at a correctional facility in eastern Montana drew criticism Friday from opponents who said it could open up that option at other facilities.
The Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City currently holds 23 youth inmates, with room for 126. Senate Bill 344, sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, would allow adult inmates to fill the spots. The bill cleared the Senate on a 27-22 vote in early March during a marathon floor session before the Legislature adjourned for a mid-session break.
Bogner and several proponents said at a House committee hearing for the bill on Friday that the current way the Department of Corrections houses inmates is “not efficient,” pointing to the empty space in Pine Hills as an opportunity to make better use of state resources by filling empty spots with adult inmates.
The Department of Corrections and the current superintendent of Pine Hills both testified in support of the bill, echoing Bogner’s idea for greater efficiency.
“We want to most efficiently use our resources, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to run a facility of that capacity with 23 [youth offenders],” said Department of Corrections Deputy Director Cynthia Wolken.
Wolken said adults would be properly separated “by sight and sound” from the youth at the facility, which houses all males.
Opponents, including Beth Brenneman of Disability Rights Montana, said the bill grants the department too much power without oversight. Brenneman added that the bill went further than a previous measure from 2017, allowing adults of any age to be housed in youth facilities. The 2017 bill, which the Legislature killed, would have allowed offenders age 19 and 20 to be housed at Pine Hills.
“This really is about decision making that should be part of an interim study as opposed to a 61-page bill that they want you to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about,” Brenneman said.
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.