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Missoula County Jail

Missoula is pretty good at studying problems and great at making plans to resolve them. It isn’t always so great at taking action.

It must be different this time.

Missoula’s city and county leaders have in their hands a 115-page Jail Diversion Master Plan, released in late April, that provides a lengthy list of sensible recommendations for significantly reducing the number of non-violent, low-risk inmates at the Missoula County Detention Facility.

While the plan does call for some further study, Missoula must not allow the current momentum to die a studious death, as has happened before. Instead, our local leaders must get to work prioritizing and acting on the recommendations right away. They can start with the no- and low-cost options, and build community support for the bigger, pricier projects.

As a community, Missoula will have to pull together and pull toward enacting both short- and long-term changes in the way offenders who commit first-time, minor crimes are treated. Only then can we hope to relieve chronic overcrowding at the local jail – and avoid having to build a bigger one.

According to the Jail Diversion Master Plan, 4,223 people were booked into jail in Missoula in 2015. A full 83 percent of them were arrested on a nonviolent offense, and of these, more than one third remained in jail for the duration of their case because they could not pay bail.

That’s a good set-up for a lawsuit given that the Montana Constitution specifies that “(a)ll persons shall be bailable” except in the most extreme cases. Imagine the justified outrage of a person of limited means who is arrested for a minor offense, forced to spend days or weeks in jail and is ultimately found innocent.

Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott commissioned the Jail Diversion Master Plan shortly after taking office. State Sen. Cynthia Wolken worked with a steering committee and advisory board to research and draft the plan.

Its primary aim is to relieve jail overcrowding by keep as many non-violent offenders as possible out of jail. Instead of automatically jailing certain low-risk offenders simply because there is no other place to put them, Missoula’s criminal justice system would divert them to programs that provide effective alternatives to incarceration. The plan recommends alternatives that have been proven successful in other communities.

After all, Missoula is far from the only county experiencing chronic jail overcrowding, in Montana and in other states throughout the nation. Indeed, the total population of prisoners in Montana grew by 48 percent over a period of 15 years, according to a Pew Charitable Trust study requested by the state of Montana in 2014. Of particular interest, the study found that the number of low-risk offenders in prison rose by 133 percent.

Responding to reports that the prison population will exceed Montana’s detention bed capacity by 2019, the 2015 Legislature created a state Sentencing Commission to study many of the same things taken up in the Missoula plan. The commission will meet next June 22-23. It’s one avenue Missoula could pursue to start building partnerships between the city and county and the state.

Among the Jail Diversion Master Plan’s recommendations is that the city and county lobby for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses, an action that would have to take place at the state level. It’s an idea that already has the support of Missoula judges who would prefer to be allowed more discretion in sentencing.

Local law enforcement would doubtless prefer to have someplace other than jail to take those experiencing a mental health or addiction-related crisis. The Missoula plan noted that 16 percent of those booked into jail in 2015 had mental health needs, while 35 percent were under the influence of drugs of alcohol.

One of the most important recommendations in the plan calls for local government to work with Providence St. Patrick Hospital and the Western Montana Mental Health Center to create a new plan to build a detox facility for low-income offenders. Securing the money for such an endeavor will be a challenge.

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The plan also asks for the city and county to partner with local hospitals to take action on the city’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, such as a drop-in center.

The good news is, many of the report’s other recommendations can be made in short order – and with little cost.

If successful, these changes will not only keep Missoula’s jail from overcrowding, they will create a more just criminal system that relieves some of the burden on the courts and law enforcement, prevents recidivism and ultimately lead to less crime in Missoula.

However, the changes will not be successful if they are never carried out. As pointed out in the Jail Diversion Master Plan, the Missoula Board of County Commissioners commissioned a report on jail overcrowding just a few years ago. The 2009 report offered several recommendations that could have prevented many of the problems Missoula is now dealing with, but they were never implemented.

Missoula’s city council members and county commissioners must make sure this plan doesn’t meet a similar fate. They should approve the plan, and then provide the focus and oversight needed to prioritize the plan’s recommendations and see that they are carried out as soon as feasibly possible.

Remember, every day of delay is another day someone must spend in jail, waiting for justice. 

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Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Acting Editor Darrell Ehrlick, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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