HELENA, Mont. — Montana corrections officials intend to go before the Legislature to sort out the legal issues of housing adult offenders in two youth prisons, which the head of the state Department of Corrections called a temporary arrangement that could be made permanent.

Director Mike Batista appeared before the Legislative Audit Committee on Thursday to respond to a recent audit that found the department is breaking the law by housing men at Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility for boys and women at the Riverside facility for girls.

Batista defended the department’s action as necessary due to an increasing adult inmate population and declining numbers of youth prisoners, and said the department’s lawyers disagreed with auditors about which state law to follow in this situation.

“Did we have legal authority to do this?” Batista asked the committee. “We felt like we did. We felt like we were in a situation given our adult population that we certainly needed additional capacity somewhere in the state for adult offenders. But we also felt like we had legal authority.”

In Pine Hills, 18- to 25-year-old prisoners are completely separated from the 39 or 40 boys being housed there, he said. In Riverside, the three girls that had been housed there are now in a youth correctional facility in Idaho, and 15 women offenders in need of trauma care are being held in the Boulder facility.

State law explicitly prohibits the department from placing youths in facilities where adult offenders are carrying out their sentences and cannot shut down a youth prison without legislative approval, the auditors wrote. The law also allows the state to enter a contract for the placement and care of delinquent youth — such as the contract with the Idaho youth prison — only when the youth prison population is over capacity, or when the state doesn’t have an adequate facility.

Batista responded that another state law requires the department to maximize its resources, and it was not doing so by employing 26 staffers to oversee a Riverside facility that at times housed just one girl. It was always the department’s intention to show up during the next legislative session that begins in January to talk about this “temporary arrangement,” he said.

If Riverside ends up permanently housing adult offenders, funding may be needed to renovate the prison to completely separate the women from the girls, as is being done in Pine Hills, he said.

“My question is, what’s the downside? Batista said. “And my response to you is there’s just a lot of upside to what we decided to do.

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