Boom town blues 

Why the Flathead’s prison population is soaring

That Flathead County’s jail, built to house 68 inmates, is over its capacity at 100, doesn’t surprise Fran Zandi, an evaluator for the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections (NIC), who toured the jail last week.

“It’s the same problem everywhere,” she says, “crowded facilities being used beyond capacity.”

According to Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont, the Flathead’s overcrowding problem has gotten to the point that the only prisoners kept in the jail are those believed to be a risk to society.

“It really affects us,” Dupont says. “We don’t serve misdemeanor arrest warrants anymore.”

Dupont asked the NIC to visit the jail to help the county get a handle on the overcrowding problem and learn about options other than building more jail space.

Dupont says the only option currently on the table is a proposed 50-bed facility that would cost $3 million. That facility, he says, could quickly be filled—he notes there are now 3,000 people with active warrants living in the county.

“Anyone can build a building,” Dupont says. “I don’t think that’s the answer. What’s causing the problem?”

What’s causing the problem, and what makes the Flathead County Detention Center different from others Zandi has seen, is that 98 percent of its inmates are awaiting trial on felony charges rather than serving sentences.

“That’s kind of unique,” she says.

Normally, the jail’s population would comprise a mix of people serving short punitive sentences and those awaiting trial.

Zandi says that waiting game was not the case at the Flathead jail five years ago, according to facility records. Today, she says, prisoner bonds are being set higher—$30,000 is the current average—which helps keep prisoners in jail until trial.

While the Flathead jail’s situation may be unusual elsewhere, Roland Mena, executive director of the Montana Board of Crime Control (MBCC), says it’s common in Montana’s 51 jails.

Why?

According to district court judge Stewart Stadler, one of three judges who send people to the Flathead County Detention Center, the number of people he sees in court who are considered a threat to the community, or likely to flee, has increased, forcing him to set higher bonds to keep them in jail. Stadler says two issues have contributed to the number of criminals he thinks should stay in jail—population growth and methamphetamine.

More people, Stadler says, equals more crime, and therefore more alleged criminals he considers a threat to the community. And meth, he says, aside from the crimes directly related to its use, manufacture or sale, spawns more violent criminals.

Right now, Zandi says, staff at the Flathead County Detention Center has management of the facility under control.

“I’m pleased as punch at the management of the jail,” Zandi says. “Despite the number and types of inmates, the officers are doing a fantastic job.”

While that may be the case in the Flathead, Scott Crichton, executive director of the Montana American Civil Liberties Union, says overcrowding is taking its toll on jail conditions in the rest of the state, and says his organization plans to bring an overcrowding-based suit against a yet-to-be-named Montana jail in the near future.

Crichton thinks the allegedly societal causes of overcrowding are actually just symptoms of a broken system.

“We have a health-care crisis that we’re treating as a criminal crisis,” Crichton says of the state’s inadequate mental health and meth addiction resources. “We need to treat people, not warehouse them.”

Judge Stadler notes that a high percentage of those awaiting trial in the county jail have violated the terms of their probation. Crichton says that’s to be expected when untreated drug addicts and people in need of mental health services are returned to society.

Both Stadler and Zandi agree the county needs alternatives to incarceration so that law enforcement has options for arrestees who pose little threat to the community, and to reduce recidivism, and thereby jail population.

Zandi says programs allowing people to avoid jail sentences on the condition they attend drug treatment, group therapy or other forms of non-incarceration sentencing are in place in “little pockets of excellence” around the country, but are not in wide use.

Brainstorming over how to deal with jail overcrowding is going on at the state level also. MBCC’s Mena notes that on Jan. 26, the organization asked the NIC to help begin the process of evaluating overcrowding across the state. In November, MBCC held a “detention dilemma meeting” to consider the problem. At the meeting, it was determined that in order for the state to get a handle on overcrowding, there need to be more alternatives to jail and better public understanding of the threats posed by overcrowding. Mena says a statewide evaluation could be complete by fall of this year.

At the county level, Sheriff Dupont says he’s skeptical of both the penal system and treatment as potential solutions to the Flathead facility’s overcrowding problem. He wonders whether a facility that would hold prisoners overnight only, allowing them to go to work during the day and keep their jobs while serving their sentences, might be a less expensive answer. At a minimum, he says, he would like to see inmates go to trial more quickly.

In about two weeks, the NIC should be finished evaluating information gathered from the jail tour, and be able to provide concrete suggestions for Dupont.

While Dupont waits for an answer, the county jail gets closer to its already-revised maximum capacity, set at 107. Dupont says the jail has never reached that number, although it came close last Sunday, at 106. At 107 inmates, a “one in, one out” policy goes into effect. In other words, when police arrest someone considered a threat to the community, someone else, deemed less of a threat by the sheriff, county attorney and a judge, will be released to make room.

Dupont admits that releasing prisoners just to make way for other prisoners is not the ideal solution, but “that’s where we stand now. Hopefully this [evaluation] will help us find a long-term solution.”

ppeters@missoulanews.com

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