Jail 

Jenks responds to master plan

She's been called "Jail 'em" Jenks, but Missoula's municipal court judge doesn't think her court is to blame for the city's crowded jail.

"If you took everyone municipal court is holding in jail today out, it would still be overcrowded," Judge Kathleen Jenks says.

Jenks takes issue with what she says is a disproportionate focus on her court in the draft city-county Jail Diversion Master Plan. Jenks, who served on the plan's steering committee, has quibbles with some of the report's specific recommendations, but says she's on board with the countywide effort to reduce the number of mentally ill, addicted and nonviolent offenders who spend time behind bars.

"The worst thing for a judge is when we have somebody in our court who has ended up with criminal charges, who wants the help, and we can't get them there," says Jenks, the city's only elected municipal court judge.

The master plan authors took a broad look at local criminal justice and health care systems, including the courts. Among the report's findings was a near doubling of the average jail stay for inmates booked out of municipal court since 2011. Overall, it found more than one-third of nonviolent inmates were serving time because they couldn't afford to post bond.

Jenks worries that limitations in the report's data may be overstating the number of individuals stuck in jail because they can't afford to post the bonds she sets. She estimates more than half of municipal court offenders in jail are also locked up on more serious charges in other courts under much higher bond amounts.

More sentencing and supervision options, as the plan proposes, would help Jenks divert suspected or convicted offenders to less restrictive environments, but she adds that jail should always be one tool at her disposal. For instance, the report cites a "concerning number" of arrest warrants issued for individuals with misdemeanor or municipal offenses. But Jenks says such warrants are the only way to force some individuals to appear in court—something she calls a "gigantic problem."

Jenks says bigger investments such as hospital treatment beds and community wet housing will be most effective in addressing jail woes. She's assembling her own budget proposal to take to city leaders that would implement new sentencing and supervision options, including programs where the city, rather than defendants, can pick up the tab. "It has a high price tag," she cautions.

As for her "jail 'em" moniker, Jenks laughs.

"I don't much like putting people in jail, honestly," she says. "But don't let that get around, because a little fear can be a good thing."

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