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Lewis and Clark County inmates play handball in the "rec yard" while a fellow cell member feels the sun on his exposed skin. Entire cells are rotated at different times, on different days so the inmates can be exposed to different types of light and temperature.

Adam McCaw, Independent Record

Despite ballot language that might prevent it, Lewis and Clark County Commission Chairman Mike Murray wants to find out whether the voter-approved renovation of the Law Enforcement Center for jail space can proceed even though the levy that would have been used to operate it failed. 

“If there’s an inch of hope, I want to jump at that hope,” Murray said.

Commissioners Susan Good Geise agreed and said “we have to go down every path.”

The commission will likely seek an opinion from the county attorney’s office, as well as attorneys involved in the possible sale of bonds to finance a $6.5 million renovation of the building.

“We have to move forward. We have to do something,” said commissioner Andy Hunthausen, who also acknowledged that the ballot language may prevent the commission from acting on voters’ approval of the renovation.

While voters approved the renovation bond issue by a single percentage point, they rejected a 15-year levy to raise $4 million annually for operations and maintenance costs, as well as inmate programs aimed at reducing jail overcrowding.

Both of this year’s detention center ballot issues hinged on each other. Voters were told that the ballot issues for renovation and operation costs both needed to win approval to move forward. 

Murray expressed regret that jail overcrowding would be unresolved when he leaves office at the end of the year.

“I think it’s unfortunate that part of the proposal was voted down,” Murray said, adding that he blamed the commission for the levy's defeat. 

“We’re not adequately educating the public on the safety needs and rehabilitation needs of the inmates that we house,” Murray said.

“I feel bad that I’m leaving the problem to the other two commissioners and the new incumbent to solve, but I want to pursue that one issue,” said Murray, who chose not to run for re-election after having served on the commission since 1993.

Jail overcrowding has been termed a crisis by the commission, and the county budget for this fiscal year, which began July 1 and ends June 30, 2017, contains $225,000 to incarcerate overflow inmates at jails in other counties where the Sheriff’s Office contracts for cells.

A fact sheet issued by the county on jail overcrowding said the facility’s recent daily population exceeded 100 inmates, with another 30 held at contract jails.

The county detention center opened in 1985 with space for 54 inmates, and additional beds were added to increase the sleeping space to 80. Those held locally in excess of 80 sleep on the floor.

Although there are additional beds beyond the initial 54, other areas of the detention center remain cramped for inmates. County officials and those with the court system and Sheriff’s Office have expressed concern for inmate and detention staff safety.

This year’s ballot issues come on the heels of those last November that sought nearly $41 million for construction of a new facility with space for the Sheriff’s Office and up to $5.3 million when fully implemented for operation, maintenance and inmate programming. Both of those 2015 ballot issues failed.

If the legal opinions on the ballot language for renovating the Law Enforcement Center don’t allow the county to proceed, voters could again be asked to help fund a solution to overcrowding.

Limiting the number of inmates who are held would require finding more beds at jails in other counties for overflow, which will be expensive, Hunthausen said.

“It may mean that we put together another proposal to ask our community for help again,” he added.

“Maybe they’re interested in just space, maybe they’re interested in just programming,” he said.

Another possibility is to ask voters for money to launch a pretrial services program that would screen inmates and allow a judge to better decide which inmates require incarceration pending trial, Hunthausen said.

Nearly all of those who are held, county officials say, are there awaiting trial and nearly all are there on felony charges.

Yet another option Hunthausen mentioned is to look for money in the county’s budget, reallocating resources from other county services, to fund a pretrial services program.

Geise echoed support for pretrial services and said it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a part of the Sheriff’s Office.

The commission is interested in collecting more data on inmates, such as on the crimes they’re accused of and mental health and chemical dependency, to provide programs aimed at meeting those needs.

Lewis and Clark County is one of four communities receiving state funding for a pilot project to collect data on inmates, the commissioners said.

Data collection, say Geise and Hunthausen, could also offer options for those who are held because the lack money for a bail bond.

A financial ability to post a bail bond means a person charged with a crime is held pending trial and can lose employment that may mean the inability to pay rent and make vehicle payments.

Allowing people to be released through pretrial services instead of being required to post a bond would be less costly to the person accused of a crime and the county as well, the commissioners said.

In addition to not holding an inmate at roughly $123 a day, inmates’ families may not be pushed to look to the county for financial assistance, the commissioners noted.

But the search for solutions to ease jail overcrowding doesn’t rely entirely on voters and property taxes.

Working with the county attorney’s office, public defenders and judges to reduce the time a person is held pending trial is also of interest to the commission, as this too would reduce the jail’s population, Hunthausen said.

Improving the data collection on those accused of crimes offers an advantage to the county, say the commissioners, which goes beyond jail overcrowding.

They see it as a way to better educate the public on why people are being incarcerated.

Having more data on the types of crimes that are resulting in people being incarcerated is important, Geise said.

“I think that it is important for the voters to know and the taxpayers to know how many are there for violent crimes. I think that they’re going to be shocked when they see the numbers,” she explained.

The county won’t be successful in seeking voter support until it provides taxpayers the information they want and deserve on the kinds of people who are incarcerated, she added.

“So many people continue to believe that if you’ve got a joint, we’re going to arrest you, we’re going to pick you up and put you in the slammer. I hear that comment all the time, and it is just simply not the case.”

Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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