The long-debated question of how to solve overcrowding issues at the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center received an answer in November, when voters approved a $60 million levy to operate an expanded jail for the next 15 years.
At $4 million each year for 15 years, the levy will also be used to add new programs to help those incarcerated.
Approval of the levy came a year after voters approved a $6.5 million general obligation bond that will be used to remodel all three floors of the detention center into detention space, which will nearly double the jail's capacity. The county would not have been able to proceed with the expansion project without the companion levy passed this year.
Two of the floors that will be remodeled currently house the offices of the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office and Helena Police Department, which are now searching for somewhere else to co-locate.
The expanded jail will house 154 inmates. This will help reduce the county's reliance on other jails, which currently house overflow inmates at an estimated annual cost of $250,000. That cost does not include medical, transportation and other myriad costs of housing inmates outside the county.
Critics of the levy said the expansion of the jail fails to address the system of mass incarceration. During public debate in October, detractors said that the county should focus funding on mental health and substance abuse treatment and press for rehabilitation rather than expanding the jail’s capacity.
Proponents of the levy argued that the jail needed to be expanded because of overcrowding issues, which could result in costly lawsuits. While they were against mass incarceration, they also felt the expansion was a pragmatic decision and would actually protect current inmates.
Sixty percent of the levy will provide new staff for the expanded jail, including 33 new detention officer positions. Prevention and diversion programs will provide mental health therapist/case managers, an early intervention commander and cash for pre-trial services, including restorative justice that will allow inmates to make reparations for their crimes.
The jail will evaluate mental health as well. Currently, no mental health evaluations are conducted at the time of incarceration.
The bond and levy combined are expected to increase annual taxes by nearly $50 on a property valued at $100,000, and nearly $100 on a property valued at $200,000.