A levy that would provide $4 million annually for 15 years to operate a remodeled jail and fund additional programming would help put people in jail who need to be there, and keep out people who do not belong, county officials said Tuesday.
The Lewis and Clark County Commission, county law enforcement and social services held a press event Tuesday aimed at explaining the details of the levy request in the Nov. 7 election.
“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from (voters) who want to know about the budget,” said county chief administrative officer Roger Baltz. The ask focuses on three challenges: public safety, overcrowding and technology.
In recent years and amid often contentious school bond requests, voters declined to fund a new jail and companion levies until last year, when a $6.5 million bond to remodel the current jail passed. In that same election, an operation levy was voted down, essentially authorizing the county to remodel the building but not providing money to run it.
While the levy has not seen organized opposition, the $4 million price tag brought questions from some in the county as to why millions in additional funding is needed for what is predicted to be the same number of inmates.
Along with more than $2.5 million for additional staffing and $775,000 in technology upgrades, on Tuesday officials detailed $750,000 funding “jail diversion and risk prevention” programs officials believe will provide several benefits.
Diversion and prevention provides risk assessment to evaluate inmates for mental health or addiction issues, as well as works with low-risk inmates to keep them out of jail while awaiting trial.
Kellie McBride with YWCA Helena noted that inmates typically wait 90 days to go to trial. For low-risk, nonviolent offenders, that usually means sitting in jail, but diversion and prevention would allow them to return to the community under a pre-trail program similar to probation and parole.
Commissioner Andy Hunthausen noted that the cost to supervise runs from $15-20 per day, compared to $112 for incarceration.
The jail currently does not evaluate inmates’ mental health at the time of incarceration, and mental health services both in and out of the jail aim to lower the rate of re-offending, he said.
Prevention and diversion programs funded through the levy include $200,000 for a mental health therapist/case manager, $45,000 for an early intervention commander, and $325,000 for pre-trial services. Those services include restorative justice, which allows inmates to meet with victims to repair damage from crimes, volunteer programs, and early intervention and supervision programs.
The levy also provides $145,000 aimed at preventing repeat offenses, crisis funding, journey home funding, and drop-in center funding.
Remodeling plans include turning the entirety of the three-floor building into space for inmates by converting two floors of office space. Inmate capacity would rise from roughly 80, although the jail is designed to house 54, to 154 beds and allow all county inmates to be housed. Currently the county spends about $250,000 per year housing inmates in other county jails. That cost does not include transportation, medical and other costs incurred by the county.
“It is currently, unbelievably, unsafely and most likely, illegally overcrowded,” said Commission Chair Susan Good Geise. “It is dangerous not only for the people we detain, it is dangerous for our detention officers.”
“The main goal that we are attempting to do is get people that are in need of being in jail actually in jail, and people who do not belong in jail, to get them out of jail all the while protecting the public safety.”
If the levy does not pass, Giese has serious concerns about potential county liability for the overcrowded facility.
Undersheriff Jason Grimmis said the current jail is not only dangerous, with an uptick in violence, but officer time spent transporting inmates to other counties affects services in-county.
“Operationally we’re in crisis mode, we have been in crisis mode for several years now,” he said, adding that some suspects are not arrested simply due to overcrowding.
“What message are we sending out to the public, to those that are breaking the law, that they don’t have to be held accountable and brought to jail for certain charges?” Grimmis asked.
A 154-bed jail would not mean the county will house 154 inmates or bring in inmates from other counties. Jails optimally run below maximum capacity, Grimmis said.
The county's estimated costs are based on what other Montana counties have spent. Better inmate screening will provide the county better data to shape operations, Hunthausen said.
The levy would increase the property taxes on a home valued at $100,000 by $42.86 annually, while a home valued at $200,000 would have an $85.72 increase in its tax bill.
Ballots for the all-mail vote go out Oct. 18 and must be returned by Nov. 7.