Editorial: Pursue alternatives to overcrowded jail (Missoulian)

The Missoula County Detention Center can hold almost 400 accused criminals and inmates at a time. It seems as though that should be more than enough capacity for a county with only about 112,000 residents. But recently, the Missoula County jail had to transport 14 of its inmates to the detention facility in Ravalli County to relieve overcrowding.

The 80-inmate facility in Ravalli County is currently only about half-full, making it a good temporary solution to overcrowding in Missoula - for the time being. Clearly, Missoula needs to come up with a long-term solution. And fortunately, Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott has one in mind.

McDermott's vision doesn't involve expanding the number of jail cells, and it bucks the pervasive tough-on-crime attitude within the justice system that may play well with voters but doesn't actually do anything to improve crime rates. Instead, McDermott is advocating that the community as a whole consider creating or expanding alternatives to incarceration that would divert most nonviolent offenders from jail.

It's an approach that has been tried and tested in communities throughout the United States, with results that indicate solid social and economic benefits. Prison should be a place of last resort, where only the worst offenders and those with little chance of being rehabilitated should spend time. Instead, first-time offenders are often held for minor crimes, and for much longer than necessary.

According to the recent ACLU Montana report "Locked in the Past: Montana's Jails in Crisis," "Sheriffs and administrators routinely estimated over 90 percent of the individuals held were charged with addiction-related offenses. Several detention administrators and sheriffs reported a recent marked increase in female prisoners charged with drug-related offenses."

That same report also noted that "Detention administrators and sheriffs reported the average length of stay for felony pre-trial detainees was three to nine months... Sheriffs and administrators pointed to over-burdened public defenders and a slow criminal justice process as contributing to long pre-trial stays."

Indeed, the assistant commander at the Missoula County Detention Center reported that most of the inmates who were taken to Ravalli County had been sentenced and were waiting for the Department of Corrections to transfer them to another facility.

Missoula County's jail might be overcrowded, but its rate of incarceration is actually relatively average. It's true that counties with larger populations tend to send higher numbers of people to jail, but when broken down by the number of adult offenders per 1,000 residents, Missoula County does fairly well. According to the Montana Department of Corrections's 2015 Biennial Report, Missoula's rate is 17.6 adult offenders for every 1,000 residents - still higher than Yellowstone County's rate of 15, but well below Lake and Mineral counties, which have the highest incarceration rates in Montana, at 23.7 and 22.9 respectively.

If Missoula County hopes to drive down its rate of incarceration rather than building it, what we need more of is not prison cells but more alternatives to jail. These could include the creation or expansion of:

  • mandatory treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction
  • mental health care services
  • parenting classes and family counseling
  • community service
  • new probationary technologies such as drug-detection patches and ankle bracelets

To its credit, Missoula County has already won a Pay for Success grant of $80,000 to study overcrowding at the Missoula jail. Hopefully it will point to causes of jail overcrowding that provide further direction. However, it's certain that any alternative, in order to be effective, will require coordinated cooperation among local judges, attorneys and law enforcement. And it will certainly require support from the larger community.

Rather than planning on building and filling ever larger detention centers, let's encourage our officials at all levels of the justice system to join McDermott's efforts to divert offenders through alternative programs that prevent them from re-offending - and help keep them out of jail.

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen