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Missoula Leaders Searching For Alternatives To Jail

Missoula County Detention Center
Courtesy Missoula County Detention Center
Missoula city and county leaders want to know what the public thinks about their ideas reduce the county’s jail population.";

Missoula city and county leaders want to know what the public thinks about their ideas reduce the county’s jail population.

"Our jail is consistently full."

That’s Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott.

"There’s times when we have inmates sleeping in the floor in booking, simply because we don’t have any place to house them."

McDermott says it’s been like that for years, and that he’s frustrated that 20 to 30 percent of the people he houses really don’t need to be there.

"We know that the non-violent, non-dangerous folks, a lot of times these addiction issues, or these mental health issues, the jail is just not the right place to properly care for these folks."

Momentum has been building since at least this year’s legislative session to find alternatives to putting people with mental illness and non-violent offenders in jail. Missoula Democratic Senator Cynthia Wolken passed a bill to create a state sentencing committee. And she’s been hired by Missoula leaders to put together a master plan for how the city and county can address their jail overcrowding problems.

"The first part of the process was reaching out and meeting with stakeholders in the justice system, and service providers, and really anybody who comes in contact with the justice population."

That part’s done, and at tonight’s meeting, the public will get a chance to hear eight different options that people in the justice system have come up with as potential alternatives to the way people are jailed now.

"We just really want to open the conversation up and get some public input as to the direction the community would like us to go in."

Those options include building new facilities. Sheriff McDermott says he thinks the area needs a place that’s available 24 hours a day to hold people who need to detoxify or who are in mental health crisis, a place that’s not a jail. McDermott also thinks the county could put more people who are currently in jail on electronic or substance abuse monitoring at home instead. He says about 10 percent of violators he’s responsible for are in programs like that now.

"Right now, our cost per day per inmate at the detention center is about $108 per day, and some of these monitoring programs, such as a home arrest bracelet, drug patch monitoring, some of these sobriety and accountability programs where an offender will come in in the morning and provide a breath sample, come in in the evening and provide a breath sample, those programs are around $10-$15 a day, they’re self-paid by the offender."

McDermott says he also thinks that fewer people would need to live in his jail if they had other places to live.

"Another neat thing that’s come out of the conversations about jail diversion is housing and housing first options, where a person is released from jail, but doesn’t have anywhere to go, doesn’t have a job and doesn’t have housing. As well as folks with addiction issues, or folks that are under the influence that aren’t able to stay at local shelters."

Tonight’s meeting is from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the Double Tree Inn in Missoula. After public input is taken there, Cynthia Wolken says, she and others involved with the master plan for jail diversion will take a hard look at exactly how many people might need the kind of jail alternatives area leaders are talking about.

"That’s what we’re really going to be looking at really closely in the next month or so, is dialing down on those numbers and getting a better sense of what the population is and who can safely be diverted."

Woken says she’ll then put together a feasibility study to flesh out how much different options might cost. She says she anticipates ongoing state funding for jail diversion programs, to which some county dollars will probably have to be added. 

Wolken says her goal is to finish the master plan in December or January, and Sheriff McDermott says he’s hopeful that he’ll have some new options besides putting the mentally ill and non-violent offenders in jail by early next year.

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