Doing prime time 

If the Missoula County Detention Facility were a hotel, it would almost always have a “No Vacancy” sign out front on weekends. Captain Susan Hintz explains that weekends are the most popular times people request to serve their 48-hour jail sentences for misdemeanors such as DUIs, so that they won’t have to miss work during the week. But the facility’s 390-bed capacity (144 of which are reserved for state inmates, 24 for federal, 24 for juveniles, 46 for county women and 152 for county men) fills up fast, says Hintz, creating a classic supply-and-demand competition for those coveted short-term weekend beds.

In response to the squeeze, the detention facility has done what any exclusive hotel might do: raise its prices. Hintz says the basic rate for a misdemeanant found guilty and sentenced by a judge to a few days behind bars at the MCDF is $75 per day. (If the judge determines a person does not have this money, he may waive the fee). This Jail Commitment Fee covers the costs of processing an inmate—time spent booking and fingerprinting, for example—as well as that inmate’s food and housing. But effective Sept. 1, 2004, the Missoula County Board of Commissioners has authorized the MCDF to raise the weekend rate from $75 per day to $200 per day.

“If someone said, ‘I’m willing to pay for the prime time to come and serve my time,’” says Hintz, they can pay the new rate. Because the jail is so crowded, people with short-term sentences often have to schedule their jail time weeks in advance, she adds, and so she can’t confirm that this new higher fee has yet been collected.

Inmates serving long-term sentences or still awaiting trial, however, pay only a $25 processing fee and then $5 per diem, Hintz says; if a trial determines an inmate to be not guilty, his money is refunded. Basically, she says, if you book a room ahead of time, you pay at least $75 per day. If you don’t plan ahead but are arrested and brought in off the street, you pay $5. “It seems a little backwards,” she says. But then again, this isn’t the Ritz.

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