Missoula stakeholders push forward with jail diversion plan

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By Martin Kidston

A plan to reduce overcrowding in the Missoula County Detention Facility by ramping up intervention efforts and placing non-violent offenders in less-restrictive environments could move from debate to approval next week, though questions over cost continue to linger.

The Jail Diversion Master Plan, introduced last year, makes policy changes to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders held in the local jail. Supporters want to implement the plan this year, with the City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee set to vote on the proposal next week.

“It’s a broad approach, and there’s a lot of different things involved in here,” said Missoula County Undersheriff Jason Johnson. “The intention is to not build a bigger jail, but to identify issues of people getting stuck in the system and help with things like mental health and addiction. That’s really a community approach, and it’s not something the detention center can take on on its own.”

Emily Bentley, one of the effort’s primary sponsors, said revisions to the latest version of the master plan address a number of questions raised earlier this year by law enforcement officials and the legal system.

As written, the plan directs the city and county to work more closely with area health-care providers, and it urges local law enforcement officials to provide crisis intervention training to patrol officers and ensure each shift has one trained officer on duty.

It also identifies gaps in local services, including the city’s lack of a social detox facility and a homeless shelter for those under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which comprise  roughly 35 percent of the total nonviolent inmate population, according to the report.

“This is the first plan, if adopted, that will call for permanent supportive housing,” said Bentley. “It calls for electronic monitoring, which we currently don’t have. We have it a little bit, but not in a systematic way. This clarifies that.”

The 121-page report dives deep into local and national statistics, best practices and alternatives to incarceration, including a greater emphasis on intervention. It makes no mention of costs associated with implementing new diversion efforts, though Tina Reinicke, the court administrator for Missoula Municipal Court, placed the price tag at roughly $1 million.

“There will be budgetary implications,” Reinicke said. “When we costed it out just before April, it was just under $1 million we’d need additionally to provide everything in the plan. We based that on real data for a year, but that’s a pie in the sky figure. We know Missoula is going to grow.”

Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins also had concerns over cost. At one point, he described the plan as flawed, though he later said he supported portions of it.

“There are some things in it I really like,” said Wilkins. “We’ve got to do something with the mental health problem. We need beds for that. The wet house thing – I’m still debating on whether that’s good or bad.”

According to the master plan, drunk driving tops the chart for charges against men in Missoula County at 9.4 percent, followed by criminal contempt at 5.1 percent, probation violation at 5 percent, and partner or family member assault at 3.7 percent.

The jail has a total capacity of 370 adult inmates and 24 juveniles. The Montana Department of Corrections pays to use roughly 146 beds in the jail, leaving 224 beds available for county adult inmates, according to the report.

Last year, the jail booked 4,223 individuals in nearly 6,000 instances. More than 82 percent of them were held on nonviolent charges. Between 2007 and 2015, the total number of daily inmates increased more than 31 percent while the length of stay increased more than 53 percent.

The jail is not crowded because more people are being arrested, the plan notes. Rather, it’s crowded because the average number of days an inmate spends in the jail has increased.

“Our contract with the state expires in 2018 or 2019,” Johnson said. “But kicking them out and putting local inmates in that space comes at a cost of $3.2 million a year. That’s what the state pays us to occupy that space. It’s not as easy as just swapping out inmates for other people. Our intention is to address the underlying issues of incarceration and the long stays that are happening.”

Members of the committee are largely supportive of the plan, though they won’t be asked to vote on the proposal until next week. If it is adopted, Bentley said, the solutions to overcrowding will take time to implement.

“This is a list of suggestions based on good evidence,” said Ward 6 council member Michelle Cares. “If we want to make progress, we should move forward and adopt the plan, and try to implement as many of the recommendations as we can.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com