When former Helena District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock retired in 2015, he said the county jail was usually empty when he was a public defender about three decades ago.
"If we had someone in jail, it was unusual," Sherlock told the Independent Record at the time.
There were only four local public defenders back then, and all of them worked part-time. The jail was located in what is now the Myrna Loy Center, which had served the county's needs since 1891.
Now Helena has about a dozen full-time public defenders. The larger detention center constructed in 1985 has become so overcrowded that the county had to weld in extra beds, and it's still paying other counties to house overflow inmates.
Sherlock said he wasn't sure whether the increase in inmates resulted from a rise in criminal behavior or legal changes that put more people behind bars, and we wish questions like these had been addressed before this problem became an emergency.
We also can’t help but wonder how many inmates could have been removed from the county’s custody if Helena had enough judges and public defenders to move suspects through the system in an appropriate amount of time. Lewis and Clark County inmates typically spend three to four months in jail before they get their day in court, which seems to be the opposite of the speedy trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.
But yesterday's failures have left us with today's overcrowding crisis, which is punishing jail employees and others at no fault of their own. And while this complex problem may have been preventable, we believe the detention center levy up for election is the best way to correct it.
We've all seen the photos and heard the stories of county jail inmates sleeping in hallways, the library and the toilet-less holding cells never intended to be used as long-term housing. County officials constantly remind us that cramming this many potentially violent people into such a small space is dangerous for both the inmates and the detention staff, and that broken security cameras and malfunctioning cell doors make it even more difficult to keep the peace.
It's also worth noting that the vast majority of those being held in the county jail are considered innocent of whatever suspected offense put them there. Unlike prison, jail is not where people go to be punished. And those housed there are being subjected to sub-human conditions before the courts have even had a chance to determine whether they did anything wrong.
But make no mistake. The overcrowding issue at the jail affects every citizen of Lewis and Clark County, not just those who have to suffer through the conditions inside the jail's cinder block walls.
Whether it happens now or later, this is going to cost the taxpayers. There's no way around it.
County officials have openly admitted that the jail is out of compliance with federal regulations, which leaves the county vulnerable to lawsuits from civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The commingling of violent and nonviolent inmates only adds to the threat of litigation.
More likely than not, the judicial system will require the county to address this issue even if the voters decline to provide the funding. As a result, officials could end up making cuts to important programs and services to come up with the money needed to pay for correction action, not to mention any legal costs incurred to get to that point.
We'd rather see county officials address the issue on their own terms, which are mindful of the needs of the community as a whole.
We appreciate that the county plans to use part of the money from the levy for jail diversion and risk prevention programs. This proactive strategy would help weed out low-risk inmates who don't need to be in jail while awaiting trial, which is a good first step toward addressing the long-term problem.
But we also believe it's important for state and local leaders to work harder to identify and correct all underlying causes of the high incarceration rate so we aren't facing this kind of emergency fix another 30 years down the road.