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Helena DSA, along with Our Revolution Helena, sponsored a public forum on the jail levy on Oct. 25 in hopes of engaging proponents and opponents of the jail levy in a discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of the approach to criminal justice being advocated by the jail levy (one of our members was an opponent on the six-person panel). We did this because we had heard from so many members of our community that they were conflicted about which way to vote. As promised, we had a lively and civil discussion which explored many relevant aspects of the criminal justice system in our community.

DSA members came away from the forum unconvinced that passage of the jail levy would lead to increased public safety, let alone a more effective criminal justice system. In essence, voters are being asked to fund a jail remodel with 38 additional staff so that about 50 more inmates could be incarcerated locally. The levy — $4 million more per year, or $80,000 per inmate per year, for the next 15 years — would at least double the amount of money currently spent on the jail. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that another levy would not be needed soon because this levy does not adequately address the problem of why people are in jail in the first place.

Why would proponents beg taxpayers to double the jail’s budget, in and of itself an admission of failure, at the same time that they won't tell us how the levy would effectively implement crucial criminal justice solutions? In effect, they are asking us to double down on their failed approach. This levy is barely better than the one resoundingly rejected by the voters just last November.

Our goal as a community should be to keep people out of jail, not find ways to accommodate more inmates. But if one of our own finds themselves in jail, our commitment, as a community, should be to guarantee their safety as well as the services needed to ensure they are much less likely to find themselves in jail again. This levy does neither.

In their bureaucratic self-interest, our county commissioners, the Lewis and Clark Citizens Advisory Council, and the sheriff’s department bear much of the blame for putting a flawed levy before the voters. In good faith, we have pressed advocates of the jail levy for answers to our questions, but they have provided few, before or since the public forum. Thus Helena DSA must oppose this levy.

Furthermore, because of reforms adopted by the Montana Legislature in the 2017 session, it is premature to be expanding capacity in the jail. Lewis and Clark is one of the counties that is a pre-trial pilot site that the judiciary is rolling out from Senate Bill 59 (regardless of whether the levy passes or not). It is a partnership with a foundation to screen every inmate for risk, thus reducing the number of people actually held in jail. Already with the effort of the Sentencing Commission, the Department of Corrections holds in county jails are down just since the 2017 Montana legislative session, and are projected to be down by 200 this calendar year. Mineral County jail closed its jail on Oct. 31. So the trend is to not expand jail facilities which commit taxpayers to a long-term and unnecessary investment. A better approach would be to let the comprehensive criminal justice systems reforms enacted in SB 59 reduce the number of jail beds needed.

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DSA members are committed to engaging the county and social service agencies in continuing an open and democratic discussion about what criminal justice means in our community and seek additional solutions at the local and state level to address legitimate public safety and social justice issues.

We can and must do better. Vote NO on the jail levy.

This is the opinion of the Helena Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

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