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Lake County Implements Labor Details To Help Relieve Jail Overcrowding

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell.
Courtesy Lake County Sheriff's Department

The jail in Lake County is so overcrowded that there are more than 800 people on a waiting list to serve. The Lake County Sheriff’s Department is trying something new to deal with a shortage of cells.

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell has a problem.

"My jail’s full ... there’s no place to put them," Bell says.

The Lake County Detention Center only has 46 beds, and people assigned jail time for minor crimes can spend years waiting to serve their time.

"So we thought, how can we help the community and help these people get it off their minds," Bell explains.

Bell’s short-term answer was to create a Sheriff’s Labor Detail. This is an option under Montana law that some other counties, like Yellowstone and Gallatin, use to help with long waiting lists. People who sign up for the program can exchange eight hours of manual labor for two days in jail. Participants pay a $25 sign-up fee and $25 for each day of work, which Bell says covers the cost of supplies, lunch and transportation to and from the work site.

"We figure we can handle six to eight, but so far it's been just three at a time," Bell says.

So far the labor detail has raked the courthouse lawn, readied de-commissioned police cars for auction and helped non-profit organizations with cleaning up their facilities.

Bell also hopes to start an overnight stay option soon. Instead of traditional 24-hour lock ups, Bell plans to convert the recreation room at the detention center into a nighttime dormitory that can house six inmates, who will fill their required hours in 12-hour increments.

"We're trying not to have people lose their job over getting their jail time served," Bell says. "So, we're really trying to work around people's schedules so they can keep their job, get their time served and benefit the community."

Neither of these programs are long-term fixes for Lake County’s jail overcrowding, but Bell says they’re a good start.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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