Justice of the Peace Michael Swingley told a citizen committee last week that many of those who have ended up being incarcerated said they were there because no one followed up with them when they got into trouble.
And many also told him that if someone had paid attention to them at that point, they could have turned them from the path they were on, he added.
Swingley's thoughts on crime came as he spoke to the Citizens Advisory Council, which was formed to help guide the recommendations that the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee will make to the Lewis and Clark County Commissioners on a new detention facility.
Those who leave high school with no diploma or equivalency certificate are left with low-paying jobs, Swingley said of conversations he’s had with people in their 20s who are in the state prison.
“That put them in a place where it’s difficult to succeed," he added.
The opportunity to make much more money bringing drugs to Montana from out of the state was more enticing than working in a fast-food restaurant, Swingley said.
The availability of marijuana locally for those who are curious about it also played a role in leading young people astray.
“Many of these kids were one parent. They didn’t have a father in their lives,” he explained.
The council has been inviting speakers to learn more about how people are processed once they are arrested in hopes of getting a better understanding of what’s causing the county’s detention center to remain overcrowded.
Swingley is an advocate for a new and larger detention facility, which voters will likely be asked to approve in November 2015. Current plans call for increasing the 70-bed capacity to a total of 300 beds at a cost of nearly $40 million, which includes $2 million toward renovating the county’s current facility once it’s no longer needed for detention.
“We have to get a bigger jail,” Swingley said, adding “We’re at a crisis point.”
Those accused of felony crimes typically begin their entry into the judicial system with Swingley reading them their rights.
“For most people, I’m the first stop in the system after they’ve been arrested and charged,” he said, though he noted that they can ask to go directly to district court.
He confronts many issues, he said, such as whether a person accused of a crime is safe to be released, what conditions to impose, whether that person will flee and the safety of the detention center’s staff.
Those who are held in the detention center can also pose a danger to other prisoners, he said, explaining he recently saw a woman prisoner who was accused of assaulting another prisoner. A male prisoner was brought to him for allegedly stealing a bag of Doritos chips from another prisoner.
“Not only do we have to worry about the prisoners, but the prisoners have to worry about the prisoners,” Swingley said.
“My main concern always is public safety,” he said.
But while his main goal is to protect the public and make the right choices for each person who is brought before his bench, he explained the problem he faces by saying “There’s just no way to predict what somebody’s going to do.”
Helena has very few services for people with mental illness, Swingley said. The role drugs play among those accused of crimes greatly concerns him.
“Helena has this tremendous heroin and meth problem,” Swingley said.
“Meth is from the devil,” he continued, adding that he has never seen any substance that has ruined more lives.
Helping someone quit using meth takes a long time and requires significant follow-up with that person, Swingley said.
Much like children today recognize the value of using seat belts in vehicles, convincing children now to not use meth is the solution he sees.
“We’re not going to be able to change people now,” he added.
The justice of the peace said he would like to see more opportunities for treating prisoners with mental health and drug addiction issues.
He illustrated the problem of mental health among some of those who are arrested by discussing a prisoner who was delusional. Swingley predicted this person would continue to be incarcerated and released until eventually being killed or killing somebody else.
“In the big picture, it is everybody’s problem,” Swingley said.
“It’s just so amazing to me what happens right down the block, here in Helena,” he said. “I don’t know what all the answers are.”
“I struggle with it every day," he added.