It is the duty of the Lewis and Clark County Commission to do its utmost to preserve the public safety of our citizens. In fact, public safety is Job One. Every Lewis and Clark County Commissioner, past and present, Republican or Democrat, urban or rural has grappled with this problem. It has evolved from a concern to a problem, and has now devolved into crisis. The challenge we face here in our community seems intractable; but the county’s very best attempt to correct it is our clear, unflinching duty.
And next week, it will be up to the voters to decide the resolution of this crisis.
Over the last few months and weeks, dozens of questions have been raised; but these questions are not new. The overcrowding at the jail has been the subject of literally dozens of meetings, attended by hundreds of area citizens for more than four years. Law enforcement, judges, attorneys for defendants and the county, commissioners, consultants, mental health advocates, experts from near and far, have contributed to determine the most effective and most efficient way to solve this sad problem.
Last year county voters said YES to remodeling the jail, BUT, unless this operations levy passes, not one bed can be added, not one.
Virtually everyone agrees that the current jail is dangerously overcrowded. There are many beliefs about why this is so. To be perfectly frank, many of the contributors to this conundrum are well beyond the county to control. Shortage of lawyers (on both sides of criminal issues), overworked judges, too few probation and parole officers, too few beds at Deer Lodge and Warm Springs, and a Montana State Corrections system in trouble are all well beyond the purview of any county commission.
Both sides of the political constellation have voiced opinions about this levy that are not completely grounded in fact.
After all these dozens of meetings, now a newly formed group of opponents (from the left) claim that supporting this levy is fostering “mass incarceration” and it does not go far enough, fast enough to completely revamp the United States criminal justice system, is urging county citizens to vote NO on the levy. They agree that our local jail is dangerously overcrowded, but rather than helping us fix what we can, where we can, as we can, they are genuflecting at the altar of their own political philosophy. The problem is that their knee is on the necks of detainees and detention officers alike. County commissioners don’t govern by slogan or bumper sticker. It is never, ever that simple.
On the other side of the political spectrum, there are those who through op-ed pieces have urged the county to find other funding mechanisms that don’t just affect property taxpayers. We may even agree, but we must abide by the statutes and use the only tool the law let us employ, property taxes. One conservative opponent recommended that only property taxpayers should vote. The U.S. Supreme Court nixed that approach decades ago. The jail remodel plan was described as a Taj Mahal. Ridiculous to anyone who has toured the jail or seen the plans, that have been available to the public for the asking.
Both polar opposites of the philosophical constellation have voiced opinions that have not been completely grounded in fact. That’s what we deal in here at the commission.
There will be some people who utterly cannot afford to pay the additional $46 on each $100,000 of their property’s value. Many have searched their consciences and under their sofa cushions to see if they can afford the proposed increase. For those people, their answer at the ballot box is no. Each one of us commissioners respects that decision.
But if you are opposed because you hate cops, or the county or criminal justice system in total, think before you vote. Consider the effects of this levy failing: continued dangerous overcrowding, emboldened criminals still on the streets, seriously mentally ill people mingled with hardened criminals, public safety diminishing.
Is this solution perfect? No. Does it make this desperate situation better? Yes. Is it the best we can do, right here at home, right now? Yes, again.
It is the commission’s duty to the do their homework. We have done just that. Now it is the citizens’ duty to do their homework, learn the facts and VOTE!
Susan Good Geise, Andy Hunthausen and Jim McCormick are members of the Lewis and Clark County Commission.