Montana sheriff: Oil patch jails at capacity, need additional funding

Associated Press

Jails in the booming oil patch in Montana and North Dakota are at capacity and need help, an eastern Montana sheriff said Friday.

Dawson County Sheriff Craig Anderson was one of several eastern Montana officials asking U.S. Sen. Jon Tester to push for federal assistance for the oil impacted region in a hearing the senator hosted in Sidney. Local officials said oil development and a subsequent surging population in recent years has overburdened infrastructure and challenged law enforcement agencies.

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Anderson said in the 1990s, a 28-bed prison was approved and built in Glendive. Officials thought that would last the county well into the future.

"We woke up one morning with a 900-pound gorilla in our bedroom and it was called the Bakken," Anderson said, referring to the oil formation that stretches across North Dakota and Montana. "And all the sudden our jail filled up."

Last month, the average population of Dawson County's jail was 27. Across the border in Williston, North Dakota, the Williams County jail regularly holds more inmates than its 132 beds.

In November, Dawson County voters will decide whether to approve a $4.5 million bond measure to help fund a proposed $9 million expansion of the jail. But Anderson said he's unsure where the rest of the money will come from and hopes the state or federal government will help.

"How much money have we spent as a country defending oil interests abroad?" he asked. "On a proportionate level, are we investing that same amount of money to protect people who are living in the Bakken?"

The influx of workers to the oil patch in recent years has caused an increase in crime. Attorney General Tim Fox said oil patch arrests went up 80 percent between 2008 and 2012. Narcotics investigations pursued by the Montana Department of Justice in the northeastern part of the state nearly tripled between 2010 and 2013.

"Anything and everything related to the justice system is overtaxed and overburdened here," he said.

National and international organized crime outfits — including Mexican drug cartels — are now "commonplace" in Montana, Fox said.

"We've got big city problems in Montana. It's not like it used to be," said U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter.

But as law enforcement agencies go after criminals in eastern Montana, Anderson says there is nowhere to put them. "The inn is full," he said.