Missoula jail diversion plan released, set for public discussion

barscuffsBy Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

More than 83 percent of people booked into the Missoula County Detention Center last fiscal year were held on nonviolent charges, and a disproportionate number of them were Native American. Nearly 35 percent of nonviolent detainees couldn’t post bond.

The figures, included in a new Missoula County Jail Diversion Master Plan, strike to the challenges facing local leaders as they attempt to reduce jail overcrowding and provide the resources needed to treat a number of community challenges, including homelessness, addiction and crisis intervention.

While the plan will undergo a series of hearings over the next few weeks – and with them possible changes – it marks progress from when the issue of jail overcrowding surfaced as a pressing local issue two years ago.

“I think it does a great job of illuminating some of the solutions,” Commissioner Cola Rowley said of the new plan. “The sheriff’s department has already started implementing things, and we’ve started looking at the way we can do things differently. It’s already started doing a lot of good.”

Still, those behind the plan admit there’s a long ways to go before the county corrects some of the pressing socioeconomic challenges surrounding incarceration. Last fiscal year, according to the document, more than 4,200 individuals were booked into the county jail, with 83 percent of them on nonviolent charges.

The report found that while Native Americans represent just 2.9 percent of the county’s population, Native American men comprise 13 percent of the jail population and Native American women 14 percent.

What’s more, the plan suggests, Missoula County courts have seen a disproportionate increase in the number of criminal cases filed between 2008 and 2014. While the county’s population grew by nearly 5 percent over that time, case filings grew 30 percent.

“I’m really excited about recommendations in the plan,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley, who serves on the plan’s advisory board. “I think there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in basic system improvements we can do that will make a difference.”

The plan lays out as many as 40 possible solutions. Working with local hospitals, it calls upon the city and county to build several detox beds. It also calls for a greater effort in training officers in crisis intervention.

Bentley said simple communication across the criminal justice system could have a significant impact. She also said the plan presents some lofty goals that could require additional funding.

“There’s a lot of lofty goals, but that’s the way plans work,” Bentley said. “Adopting this plan doesn’t mean we’re committing overnight to all of these changes, but it does show we’re committed to them working forward.”

According to the recommendations, the jail should require an evaluation by a mental health professional for anyone brought to the facility with a mental-health crisis. The report directs the county to secure grant money to construct and operate secure crisis beds.

Doing so would reduce the number of people sent to the state hospital, reduce the strain on local hospital emergency departments, and reduce the number of people booked into the jail with a mental-health crisis, according to the plan.

“Now it’s a matter of having this great foundation and getting a group together to prioritize what we can tackle, how we’ll finance different pieces, and start looking at the whole system,” said Rowley. “I feel like we’ve made a lot of process, if nothing else, in the thinking and culture around the problem.”

The City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee is scheduled to discuss the plan on Wednesday. The county will also review the plan in the coming weeks.

Missoula County Sheriff TJ McDermott made jail reform part of his 2014 campaign. Upon taking office, he faced a scarcity of detention beds and an overcrowded jail – a problem that places both inmates and staff at risk and leaves the county vulnerable to a lawsuit.

The financial burden of housing overflow offenders in detention centers outside the county was also mounting. Faced with the challenges, McDermott commissioned the master plan starting in May 2015.

The plan was released this month.

“We need to be clear on what adopting this means,” said Rowley. “It’s not feasible to say there’s 40 recommendations and we’re going to implement every one of these in the next 5 years. Some are very expensive and some are very easy.”