These problems cause taxpayers unneeded duress and undue tax burden.
That’s why there was a meeting tonight at the Double Tree Inn here in Missoula. It happened at 6 PM and was put on by Emily Bentley of the Missoula City Council, Cola Rowley of the Missoula County Commission, and Sheriff T.J. McDermott.
The latter oversees the Missoula County Jail and all the problems pretty much drop in his lap. In other words, he’s responsible for the jail and its costs to taxpayers.
Right now those jail costs are through the roof. This is causing us to send inmates to other counties. We’re also discussing the idea of building a new jail.
Is that the answer?
One of the hot button topics around this issue is mental health, and how many of the Missoula County Jail inmates are there solely for mental health reasons.
Another issue is drugs. Many inmates are nonviolent and there only because of drugs. Should they be there or is there a better place for them?
Those are the questions, and they’ve been discussed.
The Missoulian Editorial
The Missoulian got things started off this week with its opinion on Sunday morning, July 27, in a piece called MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Let's keep more Missoulians out of jail: County should pursue alternatives to incarceration.
Sadly, we don’t have the community resources to deal with this problem. “The only publicly operated acute psychiatric hospital in the state,” Warm Springs, “is 100 miles away from Missoula,” the article decries.
It’s not just a jail issue either. Because so many are in the jail our courts are backed up. They’re “asking for more public resources to handle a growing caseload,” and many times they’re calling in armchair-judges to oversee cases.
What’s particularly alarming to me is how so many of our elected legislative representatives from here in Missoula are taking part in this armchair-judging. Is there no conflict of interest concerning the various branches of government?
Let’s just sweep that issue under the rug for the time being and get back to the jails.
Cynthia Wolken, a current legislator from Missoula, is heading up the study to determine what needs to be done. She was also at the meeting tonight.
Many of you will remember that Wolken was chosen to lead up this study, and given the $40,000 grant we’d received as her salary to do that. Of course, she didn’t have any operating money after that so more grant money had to be secured.
Despite the vast resources we’ve given to this woman, her study won’t be done until “January at the latest.” I’m assuming that’s when Wolken’s $40,000 grant-salary runs out.
So far with the money thrown her way Wolken has been able to determine that crime rates are unchanging but the jail is still filling up.
Many people in the newspaper have mentioned the same over the past year. In fact, you can get just about all of this information from county and state jail reports. Alas, it cost us $40,000 to come up with gems like this:
“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.”
Drug courts are then discussed in the Missoulian as these are seen as ways to punish without using jail. Many options are given, including writing essays and alcohol monitoring devices.
One option is also a “get out of jail free card” or a second chance. Really, this is the best option.
Why are we punishing people for using drugs? We need to get off our high horses and start embracing the freedoms we purport to support instead of just acting like we do.
If someone wants to use drugs, let them. We let people drink and smoke, but we can’t let someone do drugs? If they’re not hurting anyone but themselves, to hell with it!
Folks, we’re broke.
We don’t even have the money to pay Wolken’s salary – we have to borrow it from the feds (well, it’s a gift because we can’t pay it back). On top of this, the Feds are so broke they have to borrow it from the Chinese. My, what a mess we have.
Why are we not talking about legalizing marijuana? Democrats should be all over this. Alas, you can’t count on a Democrat for much these days.
Despite this, the governor is doling out some of the tax money of yours he kept all year, you know, that $455 million surplus we have?
Yep, a measly $1.8 million is being diverted to 16 counties to deal with overcrowding. That should buy them a couple weeks.
It was also revealed on September 27 on Reptile Dysfunction that the Saturday night before the editorial there were at least 4 people booked into the jail, most on alcohol charges.
Why are we not raising taxes on alcohol since it’s clear it’s causing so many problems, and driving up costs for taxpayers? Why am I paying for this nonsense?
There were a few days of rest in the media on the issue of the jail until earlier this afternoon.
That’s when Eric Whitney, over on Montana Public Radio, had a post up where McDermott mentions how he’s frustrated that 20% to 30% of “the people he houses don’t really need to be there.”
My God man, let them out!
It’s also mentioned in the article that Wolken was responsible for getting a bill passed that created a “state sentencing committee,” whatever that is.
Whitney mentioned that there’d be eight different options up for debate at tonight’s meeting.
Then we get to costs.
It costs $108 per day to keep someone in the Missoula detention center. That adds up to:
- $3,240 a month;
- $19,440 for six months;
- $39,420 a year.
Those amounts are despicable – the working poor, people struggling to support their families on two or even three jobs, are making less than that each year.
They’re lucky to scrape together the few hundred needed for the rent each month, and you’re telling me we’re spending $108 a day on these people in the jail?
Why does it cost so much? Even at the state prison it costs just $104 a day for a woman and $97 a day for a man.
Why is it costing $4 a day more in our county jail, and are other county jails the same way?
The Meeting Begins
I hoped those questions would be answered and 15 minutes into tonight’s meeting I was happy to see Cola Rowley mention the $108 a day cost.
What surprised me is that there were no gasps from the crowd over this. Oh yeah…the crowd.
By my count there were about 48 to 50 people there, though a few looked like they were from the media.
Let me just say that I find it shameful that out of Missoula’s 15-strong legislative delegation, just one member deems it worth his time…though I will add that Wolken is also a legislator.
While talking about the “human costs” of this issue, Rowley mentioned that many of the people there tonight were involved in the trenches of this issue. I suspect that many in attendance were in the mental health profession. They stand to make a lot of money if we can get people out of jail and into their clinics.
Hey, maybe we can help them too, perhaps get their life back on track. Great, but I’m more interested in saving the taxpayer money while creating non-governmental jobs.
How much money is going to these mental health professionals? If we’re not building a new jail we’ll surely have to build or rent some community medical health centers.
Or are these already built, just waiting to be filled, and those in attendance sitting there to let it be known they’re ready for when they are?
Could be, could be…I dunno.
The 8 Options for Missoula’s Jail Overcrowding
At this point we’re about 22 minutes into the meeting and Sheriff McDermott took over to present the 8 options for Missoula’s jail overcrowding issue.
- Option 1 – Expand Jail Programming: This currently consists of AA meetings and some church stuff. We’d like to get mentoring, drug/alcohol counseling, metal health work, and PTSD work. The proposed cost for this is $100,000 and that’s mainly for the staff.
- Option 2 – Add Jail Service Providers: Currently we have one social worker for 4,223 inmates. We’d like one more social worker and two managers. They would primarily assist with reentering the community. It costs $140,000 to do this.
- Option 3 – Chemical Detox Beds: This is where the drug addicts go cold turkey. There are 18 beds, always full, and they’d like 4 more beds. This might cut down on the legal liability of the jail, as you have more people to watch the detoxing inmates so they don’t die. Cost for this is unknown.
- Option 4 – Drop-In Center & Safe House: There is no safe location for drunk people or detoxing people currently. They’d like to have this to relieve tension on the jail. There is no cost determination on this yet.
- Option 5 – Emergency Detention Beds: Some hospital beds are all we’ve got. We’d like 6 to 8 beds for “people experiencing mental health crisis and unwilling or unable to voluntarily seek treatment.” Cost is undetermined.
- Option 6 – Revising Bond Conditions: Many low-income people can’t afford the up to $500 bonds. Even $100 is too much for some people, especially those living on the street. No cost determination on this.
- Option 7 – Increase Use of Electronic Monitoring: Here we’re talking about GPS monitoring, and we have little in that department right now. This cost is $10 to $15 a day and the inmate pays it.
- Option 8 – Eliminating Jail for “Failure to Appear:” When people get petty crimes and don’t show up, the next time they’re spotted they’re arrested on a warrant. Many times these are vagrants and now the taxpayers are feeding and housing them for a few nights, maybe a few weeks. Cost is unknown.
The reason so many costs are unknown is that the state has to deal with some of these things, such as doing away with bond issues or “no appear” issues. We know that won’t happen until the spring of 2017, at the earliest. I doubt any interim committees will do anything until then.
At this point we moved on to some questions and comments.
The Pre-Release Center
Someone mentioned the prerelease center, but it was said that this study didn’t have the resources for that.
Someone mentioned cancelling the contract with the state that allows us to house 140 inmates for the Montana Department of Corrections. That’s money that the county gets, and I doubt they’ll want to give that up.
McDermott mentioned that this is an “assessment center,” so inmates are often behaved well as they want to go into convenient programs for them.
The benefit to Missoula County is $3.5 million a year for the budget. Without that money, the county says they couldn’t operate the jail without that money.
I can’t for the life of me understand why the county doesn’t have enough money without the state assistance in this.
But let’s be honest – it’s not assistance, there is none of that. Missoula has to work for that money by housing inmates that they have no room for. This drives up the chances for negligence lawsuits.
It’s time Missoula County thinks about kicking those lawsuits up to the state to deal with – their lack of funding created the problem.
Issues with Nursing Home Seniors in Jail
After that someone mentioned Lewistown and how they know about a problem with older people getting away from nursing homes. These people should be in homes but they don’t want to be. They also need critical services, such as prescription drugs.
They leave the nursing facilities without permission from staff. They end up in the jail sometimes because there is no other option for a cold night.
Lewistown is overcrowded, Warm Springs is overcrowded, and our current system is not working.
In answer we were told that a new facility is being created in Galen, on the governor’s orders just today.
Missoula’s Pre-Trial Population
It was then asked if there was any data to show us who these 80% of the population that’s pretrial is.
There’s some preliminary data going back to the new system that was installed in the jail in 2014. Right now they’re working to establish a baseline. In other words, there are no hard facts to go off of to determine where the base problems lie.
Later on in the meeting some numbers were revealed. We were given some harder facts on jail incarceration, based on 2013:
- There were 4,423 unique individuals booked in 2013.
- 83% were in on assaultive charges.
- 66% men and 33% women.
- 75% of detainees are pre-sentenced.
- 12% had been sentenced to the detention facility for less than one year or into the DOC.
- 13% held on probation revocations, 62% of these felony issues.
Someone mentioned that we should curb the powers of the judges. Another issue is having legislators go to Helena and get rid of laws instead of making so many.
Emily Bentley cut that man off, saying that we wouldn’t delve into the “weeds” of that issue.
One option is the cost that people have to endure in fines, counselling, and other issues. It was mentioned that judges should take this into account, it’s hoped.
The county has to foot the bill or match some of it for the homeless and other types. So that’s seen as an investment by the county to care for that person or pay their costs. The alternative is the $108 a day in the jail.
The Effect on Families
Extended families were then brought up.
How many people in the community at large are affected by this? Obviously thousands, so this is a serious issue.
Bentley mentioned that they needed to do a better job going forward on data gathering and tracking recidivism rates and all that jazz.
Probation Program Time Constraints
One person mentioned that many people on probation have to go to programs at 3:30 in the afternoon. That’s hard to do when the person has a 9 to 5 job.
Waiting Times for People in Jail
The average length of stay for people unable to post bond varies greatly according to the charge statute they were brought in under and the supervising court.
We were told that we had to wait a couple minutes…and it came back awhile later on 2014 stats.
Non-violent offenders stayed in jail 13.8 days pretrial, which means that costs $1,490.40.
Since they’re just sitting in jail and not getting treatment, you can almost guarantee that they’ll be back.
Native American men and women stay longer it was revealed.
At this point there was a slight lull in the questioning so I asked my 4 questions. I had to call them questions even though they were points.
Emily Bentley rushed up and said, “well, are they questions?”
I said that they were, and then I was pretty much talked over while I asked these.
I went ahead and talked over Bentley and brought up the following points:
- Legislature: The elephant in the room that we’re not mentioning. Funding laws…these guys do all this. We also have a $455 million surplus for the state.
- Treatment Programs: How many councilors are in attendance tonight, how many of you will benefit from the massive windfall of funding that’s about to come your way.
- Warm Springs: I brought up the closure of Warm Springs or the MDC or whatever you want to call it, and how we’ll soon have a huge influx of new inmates with mental health issues that we have no community clinics to deal with.
- Substance Abuse: Can you be more specific? What drugs are we talking about, what problems are being caused by what? Should the downtown bars, the Montana Tavern Association even, should they shoulder some of this burden?
I got up and raised my 4 points, and I got once answer:
Alcohol was the major substance, meth, and prescriptions.
After that we continued on with questions, most in a more soft-spoken manner than I delivered mine.
I felt the meeting was a bit shaken up – they weren’t expecting anyone to ask any real questions.
Posters on the wall were pointed out, and I guess people were supposed to get into little groups to discuss things. I’m not sure this tactic works.
It was revealed at the end of the meeting that there will be another meeting on Thursday, October 15 at the Missoula City Council Chambers. It will discuss how we can better house some of these inmates in ways other than jail.
They were fresh, and good, wholesome and delightful – everything this problem is not.
It’s clear that Missoula County has serious jail issues, and so do other counties.
We have issues with old people going into jail in lieu of nursing homes on cold nights so they won’t die.
Fingers should be pointed at the Montana Legislature and particularly the Republican Party. They’re the majority yet they continuously withhold funding.
Still, it was a Democrat that decided to close the MDC mental health facility, one allied with the mental health industry. That’s what I meant when I mentioned Warm Springs, so I made a mistake there. The principle still stands, however, and the clinics and counselors still stand to profit.
We have nothing to fill the gap on this and those MDC-affiliated centers are closing, their “inmates” being turned loose. I’d rather we give money to mental health instead of jail. At least then people might get better.
The State of Montana has $455 million in the bank right now yet its infrastructure crumbles, its jails overflows and its old people die in the snow-covered streets.
What a shame, what a shame this is.
What can be done?
Well, we could fund these things with the cash we have. Fingers must be pointed at Governor Steve Bullock and his banker cronies. We could have had infrastructure, but he wanted to borrow the money.
There’s currently no plan for the 2017 Legislature to deal with these issues.
Legislators don’t think they’re issues because they weren’t at the meeting tonight. Most are no doubt out raising funds for their campaigns.
Don’t expect much to change on this.
The costs to Missoula taxpayers will continue to go up, either in the form of funds to deal with the problem or to fund studies to look at it.
Nope, nothing will be changing anytime soon. That’s a damn shame. Blame the legislature, blame the governor. Who else is responsible?