As Missoula County’s sheriff, my No. 1 priority for my community is public safety. This goes for all the brave men and women who put on their uniform every day to respond to emergencies and keep families and kids safe. We are in the process of implementing the recently-adopted Jail Diversion Master Plan, which will get folks the mental health and/or substance abuse help they need early on, reducing the pressure on our overcrowded jail and the Montana State Hospital.
Overcrowded county jails across the state hamper our ability to serve — in many communities, they are the largest mental health providers. This spring, Gov. Steve Bullock and legislators joined together to address this issue. They passed sweeping bipartisan legislation from the Sentencing Commission to help transition offenders successfully back into our communities, reduce the risk that these folks will end up back in our jails, and allow us to do our jobs to keep Montanans safe.
These pieces of legislation were all data-driven and designed to relieve pressure on our county jail holds and save taxpayers an additional $69 million over the next six years. And while I applaud the efforts of legislators and our governor to invest in criminal justice reform, we can say goodbye to this ever happening if deep budget cuts are enacted at the Montana Department of Corrections.
If Governor Bullock is forced to make the proposed 10 percent budget cuts at the Montana Department of Corrections, efforts to increase the number of alternative beds through transition centers or provide offenders with substance abuse treatment will be reduced. Additionally, we will see the following programs cut or eliminated:
- Funding for forensic interviews of child victims of abuse or neglect
- Funding for domestic violence shelters
- Youth crisis diversion to keep kids out of the system and with their families
- Chemical dependency treatment services
- County jail diversion programs, like the one currently in the Missoula County Detention Facility
- Crisis intervention funding, providing ongoing training to law enforcement on how best to respond to those in crisis
Legislators need to be serious about working with Governor Bullock to find alternative solutions to these harmful cuts that do not put an increased burden on county property taxpayers. We saw bipartisanship in the making when 10 pieces of legislation to reform Montana’s criminal justice system were signed into the law. I believe that we can see it again if legislators put the same mind to it.
We are all better off when we work together and find long-term solutions to best serve Montanans. We cannot afford to forsake all of the progress that we have made on the issue of jail crowding and diversion.