Political leaders across Missoula have high hopes riding on a University of Utah grant designed to find innovative ways to address major societal issues, including jail overcrowding.

County commissioners this week applied for a $101,000 grant from the university’s Policy Innovation Lab to create a “Pay for Success” program that could, they believe, take pressure off the county’s 394-bed jail.

“This has never been done in Montana before,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “There are only four or five places in Montana with the capacity to do this. If you can get somebody in Montana to figure this out, they can help bring it to the entire state.”

The Policy Innovation Lab, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the White House and its Social Innovation Fund, issued a call for proposals from governments in 10 Western states to tackle issues in criminal justice, education and homelessness.

The lab will select three to five local governments to fund, and Missoula County hopes to be one of them. Despite new social programs and jail diversion efforts, overcrowding remains an issue at the county’s 16-year-old detention center.

“Under the leadership of the sheriff’s department, Missoula County has identified the reduction of jail overcrowding as a top priority,” the county wrote in its application letter. “We’re beginning the process of developing a master plan for a cohesive community strategy to address over-incarceration.”

The county believes the Pay for Success model could serve as an “innovative and appropriate” way to find new solutions to the problem. It’s one of several grants on the table aimed at overcrowding.

A task force that includes county commissioners, the City Council, the mayor, sheriff’s department and County Attorney’s Office is also working on a long-term strategy to address the issue.

Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, also has introduced legislation to study the state’s sentencing practices and policies in this year’s Legislature.

“They’re trying to get everything under one umbrella and have a cohesive strategy,” Rowley said. “This grant would provide the technical support and give us a way to fund the program.”

Rowley said the Pay for Success program drives governments to spend their resources on social efforts that deliver proven results. Private funding covers the startup costs, with those expenses reimbursed if the program achieves its stated goal.

In Missoula County, the goal hasn’t been defined. But if the grant is successful, the Utah program would help provide the expertise to get the program in place and establish measurable goals.

“Instead of sinking a lot of money into programs, the government can put money into outcomes,” Rowley said. “It supports evidence-based policymaking. The first year isn’t a project. It’s just the University of Utah providing technical assistance and the money to see if we’re set up to do this.”

The county’s letter of interest details overcrowding issues at the jail and the failure to fully address them despite best efforts.

Programs like the Missoula Pre-Release Center, misdemeanor supervision, pretrial supervision, sobriety and alternative jail programs haven’t resolved the issue.

Of the 394 beds at the jail, more than 387 are filled on any given day, making it difficult to house offenders according to their classification. Many are repeat offenders and some have mental health issues that contribute to their incarceration.

The county believes that incarceration rates could be reduced with better mental health care, substance abuse, affordable housing, wet housing and detoxification facilities.

“The Pay for Success program is a new financing model where investors fund for an outcome,” Rowley explained. “If it’s a successful outcome, the government pays the investors back with interest.”

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