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Repeat drug- and alcohol-related offenses a drain on the system


Last updated 10/17/2019 at 11:59am

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Havre Police Officer Tanner Donovan of the Havre Police Department speaks to a young woman after pulling her over Aug. 16. Law enforcement says it often stops or arrests the same people repeatedly, often for offenses related to drug or alcohol use.

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on the issue of repeat offenders with drug and alcohol problems. Watch for Part 2 in Friday's edition of The Havre Daily News.

Repeat arrests of people with alcohol and drug abuse problems has been an issue in this region for many years, Havre Police Chief Gabe Matosich said, and has played a role in increased crime rates and domestic abuse.

Although law enforcement and the court system have been working to combat the issue, more work needs to be done, he said.

"Very seldom do we work an incident where drug and alcohol are not a part of it," he said. "That always seems to be the common denominator."

This region has limited resources and funding, less than some other areas in the country, but everywhere drug and alcohol abuse is a concern, Matosich said. Recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend, is a large issue Havre Police Department and the Hill County Sheriff's Office deal with on a regular basis.

Matosich said the majority of the recidivism revolves around alcohol abuse, with some people arrested several times in a month.

"It's what it's always been," he said. "... It's there no matter what. It seems like, no matter what we do, they reoffend."

Repeat offenders are a strain on law enforcement as well as on the taxpayers, he added. The time it takes to respond to the call, talk to witnesses, gather pertinent information and make the decision if someone needs to be arrested takes time, along with taking the person to the detention center, booking and processing all the documents and reports, which takes at least an hour. He said oftentimes officers look for alternative options than immediately arresting people, looking for alternative options such as taking them to a family member or friend who may be willing to help. For some repeat offenders, this is not an option because of their history of reoffending. 

Hill County Sheriff Jamie Ross said that the sheriff's office is doing what it can to divert people from having to go to jail, but once they are in jail deputies do their best to provide the best treatment and get the help for those who are incarcerated. He added that all the staff and deputies in the jail are trained to be vigilant and aware of withdrawal symptoms from drug and alcohol abuse.

"The safety of the people comes first," he said.

He said that he has been in law enforcement for 27 years and has seen people, their children and grandchildren have legal issues because of drug and alcohol abuse. It is a statewide issue and, he said, he doesn't know what can be done to resolve the problem. He added that Hill County Drug/DUI court has done a great job at reducing recidivism in the area and preventing people from going back to jail, but more work needs to be done.

Options available to law enforcement

Officers have to look at the risk factors, Matosich said: Does the person pose a risk to themselves or others or are they a repeat? He added that the person also has to commit a crime in order to be arrested or detained. Law enforcement can't just arrest an individual for intoxication alone, and the person has to be committing a crime.

Matosich said, what is great about the community is it has several organizations, such as the Salvation Army, that raise funds that help law enforcement. These organizations provide aid to the department if needed, helping the people they encounter to find an alternative to jail, he said. If a person is drunk, but has nowhere else to go and it is their first offense and are not a danger to themselves or others and have not committed a crime, officers are able to provide an alternative to jail. 

He said that law enforcement previously was able to detain people in protective custody and house people, who may have been a risk to themselves or others, in the detention center for a period of time until they sobered up. But this practice has since been taken off of the table, he said. Protective custody had a number of liability issues for the sheriff's office and the police department.

Law enforcement officers also take people who are heavily intoxicated, to a point of possible alcohol poisoning, to the hospital, Matosich said. He added that this doesn't always work because the person has to be under medical care voluntarily, and the medical staff and or law enforcement cannot force a person to receive medical attention.

Northern Montana Hospital's work on the issue

Northern Montana Hospital Compliance Officer Christen Obresley said in an email to the Havre Daily News that both the Havre Police Department and the Hill County Sheriff's Office bring patients to the emergency room for legal blood draws and medical care.

"The hospital and local law enforcement have an excellent long-standing working relationship," she said. "Both the hospital and local law enforcement agencies realize that a symbiotic relationship is necessary to meet the community needs."

She added that illegal drug and alcohol abuse is an area of concern to the hospital and has been identified in the Hill County Community Health Needs Assessment. She said Hill County residents who responded to the community health survey also said that addressing illegal drug abuse and alcohol abuse was of high importance to them.

"When a repeat offender is being treated in our emergency department, our chemical dependency counselor is requested to speak to the repeat offenders and give them options on what is available to him to help them find the best path to recovery," she said. "We at (Northern Montana Hospital) never stop helping the offender until they finally want recovery. Hopefully they then decide to enter the program for addiction we offer here at (Northern Montana Hospital)."  

Northern Montana Hospital provides evaluations, treatment and intensive outpatient, medication-assisted treatment, the Prime for Life drug and alcohol addiction treatment program, and other chemical dependency treatment services, she said. She added that the addiction counselor at the hospital can also refer patients to higher levels of care for inpatient treatment, and also conduct continuum of care at the hospital. The chemical dependency treatment services at the hospital also offers mental health treatment.

Obresley said that the behavioral health team at the hospital and both providers work together to provide co-occurring treatment. 

Northern Montana Hospital uses its Chemical Dependency Department to formulate and implement a course of treatment for patients, she said. She added that Northern Montana Hospital is the largest treatment center in the region, serving adults and adolescents with substance use and co-occurring disorders, which is an addiction and a mental health problem. The hospital views addiction by looking at the whole person and the illness affecting an individual's emotional, physical, spiritual and social well-being. She said the programs are aimed to help provide some balance to patients' lives.

"Addiction is known as the 'family disease' and this is true in more ways than one," she said. "It is a family disease because the effects of addiction are felt by not only the individual struggling with addiction but everyone around them. However, addiction is also a family disease in the sense that it has a genetic component to it, and those individuals are predisposed to have an addiction. Of course, environmental factors come into play here, but for some, addiction is unavoidable. We at (Northern Montana Hospital) provide family therapy, as there are a lot of benefits to be gained by attending family therapy." 

Obresley added that, within Hill County, a number of community members are working independently and together through the Hill County Health Consortium to raise awareness and support prevention strategies.

"People who are not ready to be clean will not be able to address their issues, and so they repeat the addictive behaviors over and over," she said. "At (Northern Montana Hospital) we give them the hope of a better life without substances and build on their positives, not the negatives in order to change."

She said treating drug and alcohol abuse has to look at many contributing factors, including genetics, education, cultural differences, patience and understanding.  

"This issue has been with us for centuries and will probably never go away, but we hope we can learn from our past mistakes related to this disease and move in a more positive direction," she said.

What is seen on the streets of Havre?

Havre Police Sgt. Lucas Ames said that it is normal, especially during the weekend, to have the majority of the calls they receive be alcohol or drug related. He added that people who are heavily intoxicated, most of the time relating to alcohol, are a hazard to themselves and others. People who are intoxicated could stumble into a road and be at risk to motorists, or are rowdy and more likely to try to start conflicts and fights.

"It's definitely a big issue," he said.

He added that officers tend to see more people intoxicated during the summers, or when the weather is nicer, because more people are willing to go to the bars. Winter usually keeps many people home. 

"Most people that we do arrest have been arrested for the same thing multiple times," Ames added. 

He said that 65 to 70 percent of the people who they arrest are repeat offenders, with charges such as disorderly conduct, thefts or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He added that almost all, about 90 percent of the calls law enforcement receives, are in some way related to drugs and alcohol.

Ames said he doesn't know why the rate is so high, but it is similar to a number of other areas around the country. He said that it is the life the person lives, they live that way for so many years and have no desire or ability to charge, so their destructive behavior continues. Spending a week or the weekend in jail makes no difference to them, he added.

Often times they have nowhere else to go, he said, and the detention center is able to provide three meals and a bed.

He added that he wishes the area had a better way of dealing with its drug and alcohol abuse problem, but for law enforcement, their duty is to maintain the peace and keep people safe. 

He said that a protective custody would be a beneficial way to keep people who are incarcerated five times a week for charges, such as disorderly conduct, safe, but it may not be cost-effective and has a large liability issue. But something has to be done about repeat offenders, he said.

"It's extremely important because it helps the other citizens of Havre and Hill County," he said.

Most of the repeat offenders are called in by a person who is concerned about the welfare of the person, not usually in a complaint, he added.

Ames has been with the Havre Police Department for more than 10 years, he said, and when he first started with the police department he was arresting a number of parents, who had young children at the time, for drug and alcohol charges. As time has gone by and those children have grown up, he is now arresting those children.

"I think, 100 percent, that people are a product of their environment," he said.

Matosich said that he has also seen a similar pattern during his time in law enforcement.

"It's so hard to break that cycle," he said.

He added that the department focuses on the basics to help combat this issue, educating children from an early age, with the help of Havre Public Schools, the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Hopefully they acquire and retain the skills they need to be able to remove themselves from those situations, he said.

Something the department is also utilizing is the school resource officer position, he said. School resource officers are able to work with and train students to recognize and deal with behavioral issues, while also teaching students from a young age how to work with police rather than being afraid of them, he added.

Matosich said that the school resource officer goes to the school campuses in Havre and works with teachers in techniques to reach out to children. He added that the department also has community events such as National Night Out and makes appearances at the Hill County Health Department's Lil' Shots Carnival to help children feel comfortable with police officers.

Ames said that just because someone's parent is an abuser of drugs and or alcohol doesn't mean that the children are destined to have the same problems. In a number of cases this has been shown not to be true, but the chances of it happening and the difficulty for them to remain clean are much higher.

When he first came to Havre, he was surprised how busy the police department was, he said. Ames is from a small town in Wyoming which was similar to Havre in a number of ways, he said, but the crime rate in Havre is much higher. 

He added that most of the crimes in some way relate back to drugs or alcohol, but treatment facilities, such as rehabilitation centers are limited around the state and are maxed out on the number of patients. And a number of the people who reoffend have received treatment, multiple times, and are still reoffending, he said.

Rehabilitation hinges on if a person really, truly wants to get better, Ames said, adding that he has seen it first-hand and if people don't want to get better they won't.

How repeat offenders impact law enforcement

Ames said the Havre Police Department has a large area to patrol and usually has two or three officers patrolling at a time. He added that with low staff numbers, the department usually has two officers on patrol. Repeat offenders are a strain on the department because of the time it takes to arrest and process someone as well as any arrest requiring two officers to respond in case backup is needed.

Matosich said that ideally the department wants to have three officers each 12 hour shift, but without the staff, officers regularly have to have two-officer shifts.

"That's always a huge concern. It seems like we never have enough staff, but you are limited," he said. "It would be ideal someday to get to four-man shifts for this size of a town and the amount of calls we get."

He added that the department is a few staff shy of haveing the staff for three man shifts. It recently received a grant which allowed the department to grow by one officer, he said.

"It's just resources and finances," he said.

But those is in short supply in the area, he said. The region doesn't have as many resources and funding as larger areas, such as Missoula or Bozeman, because of its rural location. He added that Montana in general is rural and other states have more resources and funding to better handle recidivism and repeat offenders.

The Havre and Hill County area also has a large number of felonies, internet crimes and other large issues which require a detective to work the different cases, he said. But the department has recently lost it's detective and has not found a replacement. He said that the duties of a detective falls onto the sergeants who are on duty during a shift. 

"Whatever the call is that come in, it's the sergeant on shifts responsibility to see it through to the end," he said, adding that often times these cases take longer, sometimes months to conclude and require a number of shifts to get involved to help the case load.

Officers on duty also have a number of other things they are required to do other than their daily patrols, he said, including traffic patrols, building checks, investigating calls, complaints and disturbances, and more lengthy internet crimes. But the most common of the crimes they investigate are in some way related to drugs and alcohol.

He added that the hour it takes to investigate, arrest and process an intoxicated person is a large drain on the force. With such a small staff, he said, an hour is a large fraction of their time. If officers have to make three or four arrests in a night because of people are drinking heavily and causing issues, the officer will not be patrolling the streets at those times, taking the officer away from their other duties.

Ross also said the issue is a drain of resources and tax dollars. The detention center costs more than $20,000 to operate each month, with the electricity and building facility costing about $5,000 and food for the inmates costing about $16,470 every four weeks.

The jail also has a limited number of staff members, he said, some of whom are also trained to do medical screenings and a number of other services to assure inmates are not a harm to themselves or others, he added.

Matosich said the police department has tried multiple different methods of attracting applicants, including recently getting involved with a web-based application service. The service has increased the number of applications the department has gotten in the past year, but the background check for officers is extensive and the hiring process is lengthy, That, in addition to the rural location of Havre, makes it difficult to hire officers.

Having more officers would also allow his department to operate in case someone needs a vacation, he said, and still have the streets adequately patrolled.

But even with a smaller staff, he said, the department is still able to do the job and make things work. He said this, in part, is thanks to the Hill County Sheriff's Office providing assistance if needed and the Havre Police Department providing assistance to the sheriff's office if needed. The partnership between agencies is a significant benefit to both parties and is a valuable resource to the area.

Ross said that the partnership is mutually beneficial and helps increase the protection of the city and county.

"Local law enforcement does a good job," he said.

What needs to happen?

Ross and Matosich agreed that Havre and Hill County need additional help to combat the drug and alcohol abuse problems in the area. 

Ross said what would help with reducing the number of repeat offenders, especially relating to drug and alcohol abuse, is to have a community facility, such as a detox facility or rehabilitation facility, locally that could treat people who are struggling with addiction and divert people from jail. He added that establishing a mental health treatment facility would also have a large impact on the crime rate. People who struggle with mental health issues such as schizophrenia don't belong in jail but in a treatment facility. 

He added that the impact of having mental health and rehabilitation facilities would have a largely positive effect for the area and the surrounding communities. He said that these facilities are needed not only in Hill County but across the state and the country.

Matosich said that areas such as New York City and Los Angeles already have treatment facilities, because of the money and the population size of those cities, but in rural Montana it is hard to find the funding. He added the state is in desperate need of more of these facilities, and if one was established in Hill County it would be a great resource to not only this region but also the entire state.

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

But it will not solve the problem of recidivism, he said. It would lower the number of people but the overall problem of having people reoffend will never go away.

He said an important way to combat repeat offenders is through the criminal justice system. Matosich added that the drug/DUI treatment court has been great with helping the problem, although people who are in the treatment court program have to be referred to the program by a judge as well as have the person agree to enroll.

"The biggest issue is people's mindsets," he said.

He added that it all comes down to whether people want to get better and live healthier. If a person wants to get better they can and have a variety of things available to them to help them get started. But it is the people who have chronic cases or feel no need to change who pose a problem.


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