A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

8 October 2017 — 0920 mdt

Does Flathead County really need a $50 million new jail?

Yes, say Sheriff Chuck Curry and County Commissioners Mitchell, Kruger, and Holmquist — and they want to build 260-bed quod in Columbia Falls, on Weyerhaeuser land near Plum Creek's old Cedar Palace, which would become the new headquarters for the sheriff's department.

According to the sheriff's website:

The Detention Center is equipped to hold adult male and female persons. It was opened in October of 1987 with a holding capacity of 63. Our average daily inmate population in 2007 was 92. The majority of persons held in this facility are pre-trial, meaning they have been accused but not convicted of a criminal offense.

By my quick review of the jail's current 117-person roster, approximately one-third of the prisoners are charged with drug offenses, such as “criminal possession of dangerous drugs.”

After the commissioners entered into a $2.6 million buy-sell agreement agreement with Weyerhaeuser, and plunked down $130,000 in earnest money, they held public hearing on the issue. At both the Columbia Falls and Kalispell hearings, public opinion overwhelmingly, and sometimes angrily, opposed building a new jail in Columbia Falls, and moving the sheriff’s office there.

Flathead County’s judges aren’t happy about the idea, either, reports the InterLake:

“We have issues now because of security,” Judge Heidi Ulbricht told the commissioners, noting the need for tighter security during highly contested civil hearings. “Security is a major concern if the Sheriff’s Department is moving to Columbia Falls.”

This decision making sequence — first buy land, then ask the voters whether building a jail on it makes sense — is standard operating procedure for these commissioners. A couple of years ago, they tried to buy the old Walmart building east of Kalispell, planning to convert it to a jail. That deal fell through when another buyer paid more for the land, thus rescuing the commissioners from their folly.

Will a higher bidder for the Weyerhaeuser land rescue the commissioners from this folly?

At some point, of course, if crime keeps up with the Flathead’s increase in population, a new jail may be needed. But before removing $50 million from the taxpayers’ pocketbooks so that pickpockets can be picked up and placed in a glorious new slammer, the emphasis should be on finding ways not to put so damn many people in jail.

How many people charged with a crime are locked up in Curry’s hoosegow because they can’t make bail? Has bail deliberately been set so high that impoverished prisoners can’t possibly make it? If so, their presence in the jail amounts to serving a sentence before being convicted of a crime. Are inmates being over-charged so that the prosecutor has more leverage in negotiating a plea agreement?

On a programmatic level, we need to reconsider whether our lock-’em up until they’re clean law enforcement approach to drug dependence is the best policy. Here’s Sarah Evans, a senior program officer with the Open Society Public Health Program, writing in the Democracy Journal:

…Legal trouble compounds the problems people struggling with drug dependence face, and the prison system is not an effective place for rehabilitation. In fact, because even a brief jail stay without drug use reduces a person’s tolerance to substance, more opioid users die of overdose after leaving jail (or rehab) than at any other point. While law enforcement has a proactive and positive role to play in responding to the overdose crisis, we need to recognize that laws that criminalize possession discourage them [users] from seeking health care and social support, increase risky behavior, and raise the risk of illness, including HIV infection. We should consider following the lead of countries that have reduced or eliminated criminal punishment for drug possession, like Portugal—where drug use rates have fallen and health outcomes have improved.

A more enlightened approach to drugs could reduce the need for expanding jails, and as a bonus, reduce the number of law enforcement officers needed for the drug enforcement task forces that have been losing the war on drugs for 40 years.

If a new jail does become necessary, it ought to be built in Kalispell, as close to the courthouse as possible. An ideal site is the city airport, a wholly unnecessary airfield. All of that airport’s operations could be moved to Glacier International, and the land freed for a new calaboose and other county and city operations.

But a new jail ought not be built in Columbia Falls, however much the Border Patrol might like it. It’s a bad idea that the voters don’t like. If a bond to pay for a new jail there is put on the general election ballot in 2018, it will be defeated.