BILLINGS — The Alpha House pre-release center in downtown Billings has come into the spotlight over the past couple of months after two high-profile crimes - a stabbing at Jake's Downtown restaurant in November and more recently, a double homicide on the South Side - involved two Alpha House walkaways.
"As a community member, my first reaction was the same as everybody else's - I had a lot of regret, a lot of remorse," said Dave Armstrong, CEO of Alternative's, Inc. which manages Alpha House.
Armstrong knows much more than an average citizen. He has been with the Yellowstone County pre-release program since its inception in 1980, and he sees two big differences popping up recently.
"More and more we are dealing with people who are drug-addicted and dealing with mental health issues," Armstrong said, "and as a group, we haven’t cracked the formula in dealing with those issues."
Billings’ two pre-release centers - Alpha House for men and Passages for women - don't house the criminal population most think. According to Armstrong, Billings has around 2,600 offenders currently and just eight percent of those - a little over 200 - are housed in the two six-month sentence facilities at any one time. Of those 200 plus, 80 percent are non-violent and non-sexual offenders, with 20 percent reserved for those types of felonies.
That ratio is by Alternatives’ choice.
"We're looking for people that we can impact the most," Armstrong said. "Ironically, a pre-release center probably isn't a great place for the lowest level of offender, because their recidivism rate (rate by which an offender goes back to prison within three years) goes up if they're in close contact with a higher level offender."
"Ours are mostly moderate to high-level offenders, again, with just 20% of them convicted of violent of sexual crimes. If we thought they posed a risk to the community, we certainly wouldn’t take that person, but it’s an inexact science, even with all risk needs assessments we do. We have less than two percent who would commit offenses in the community, but we cannot always predict those accurately and protect the community from everybody."
There are 10 pre-release centers in Montana, located in every major metropolitan area except for Kalispell. A Montana court will recommend an offender be sent to one, that offender then chooses to which they’ll apply. Armstrong says Alternatives accepts just below 60 percent of applicants.
Still, over the last five years, Alpha House has been responsible for 25% of all Montana male pre-release residents, while Passages has housed 46 percent of all female pre-releases.
Fifty percent of the residents in Alternatives programs are from Yellowstone County, with the majority from the surrounding area, known as Region 6. But remember, that’s just 8 percent of Yellowstone’s offenders. The other 92 percent are living on parole or probation - still subject to check-ins and rules, but not at the level of those living in pre-release centers.
"Our offenders are out working in the community, so we don't have eyes on them 24/7, but we know where they are or are supposed to be at all times," Armstrong said. "We track their cell phones, some are on GPS."
And if a resident isn’t where they’re supposed to be, we hear about it.
"We’re very visible," Armstrong said. "If someone walks away, we report that to the public. You wouldn’t hear that about someone absconding from parole. But that gets us publicity for the 2-3 percent that might walk off from the facility, risking a 10-year sentence."
The two recent events are part of why Armstrong and his team opened a downtown center two years ago focused on drug and mental health treatment. It’s the 7,000 people a year that graduate from those classes that he’s focused on.
"The majority of these people are invisible."