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MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Let's keep more Missoulians out of jail: County should pursue alternatives to incarceration

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Let's keep more Missoulians out of jail: County should pursue alternatives to incarceration

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When someone is having a mental health crisis, jail shouldn't be the only option.

Yet that is exactly where too many Missoulians who struggle with mental illness and addiction often find themselves, in large part due to the dearth of local treatment options.

Unfortunately, most county jails lack the facilities and training to respond appropriately to severe mental illness or intoxication, and resources in our rural state are scattered. The Montana State Hospital, the only publicly operated acute psychiatric hospital in the state, is 100 miles away from Missoula in Warm Springs.

With the local jail overcrowded and courts asking for more public resources to handle a growing caseload, the time is ripe for Missoula to have a discussion on how to keep more non-violent offenders out of jail – and to answer the call from county leaders to support effective alternatives to incarceration.

Cynthia Wolken, a former Missoula City Council member and current state legislator, is leading the team that’s putting together a Jail Diversion Master Plan, which should be complete by January at the latest. The data collected so far points to a situation in which “crime rates are largely static,” Wolken told the Missoulian’s editorial board, “yet our corrections population is increasing at a rate that is unsustainable for our current facilities.”

According to the statistics gathered by Wolken’s team, the prison population grew on a national level at a rate of 6 percent between 2004-2013. Meanwhile, Montana’s prison growth rate was 15 percent. General fund spending on corrections has also grown – by nearly 40 percent since 2006 – yet Montana is expected to be at 110 percent capacity within the next four years.

In Missoula, preliminary estimates for fiscal year 2015 show that 4,223 individuals were booked into the detention facility and of these, 83 percent were arrested for non-violent offenses. Three of every four detainees were “pre-sentenced,” that is, awaiting trial, plea or other action in their case.

The latter group provides a clear target to focus pre-trial diversion efforts – alternatives to jail that would allow more people to remain in their jobs and homes and with their families, instead of being held in jail for a month or two simply because they cannot afford to post bond.

Indeed, revising bail structure was among the suggestions offered by American Bar Association President Paulette Brown when she met with the Missoulian editorial board earlier this month. It was among the many alternatives to jail that, Brown said, may require more time on the part of judges and court staff, but don’t require significant additional funding.

Other options include:

  • Providing a one-time-only “second chance,” a sort of “get-out-of-jail free” card.
  • Requiring younger or more highly educated offenders to write essays.
  • Optimizing the use of drug- and alcohol-monitoring equipment.
  • Expanding drug courts.

Drug courts can be particularly effective at reducing the rate of recidivism, and support for such specialized courts has grown in recent years in recognition of this. Montana’s first drug court launched in Missoula in 1996, and there are now 31 drug courts in the state. Missoula now has drug courts for youth, veterans and families, as well as, since 2004, a co-occurring treatment court for non-violent offenders struggling with both substance abuse and mental illness.

These are proven low-cost options, however, if Missoula hopes to provide comprehensive treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, the community as a whole must agree to commit sufficient funding for additional services and facilities, including:

  • An emergency detention facility for severe mental health crises.
  • Additional chemical detox services.
  • Some sort of “wet housing” or drop-in center to offer a safe place for people who are chronic abusers of drugs or alcohol.

The good news is that the 2015 Legislature approved funding that allows counties to match funds for mental health care. Earlier this month, the Governor’s Office announced that 16 counties will share $1.8 million to boost crisis care in their communities, and Missoula’ County’s share is $253,221.

The money is meant for existing or new projects that promise to increase jail diversion specifically for people with mental illness, and can be used to fund stabilization facilities, provide crisis intervention training and hire additional mental health staff, among other uses.

Following the governor’s announcement, Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott, County Commissioner Cola Rowley and Missoula City Council member Emily Bentley organized a public meeting to share information and strategies on jail diversion. That meeting will take place this Tuesday, Sept. 29, from 6-8 p.m. at the DoubleTree Hotel at 100 Madison St.

Missoulians should take the time to weigh in. It’s time for us to decide, as a community, whether we would rather pay for the kinds of services that allow people to lead healthy, safe and productive lives – or keep paying to build bigger jails.

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Matt Bunk, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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