Missoula jail plan passes initial vote, though tensions remain in debate


By Martin Kidston

Despite the concerns of a municipal court judge, the Missoula City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee approved a jail diversion master plan on Wednesday, saying that despite its flaws, it would help elected officials budget for social needs.

The discussion marked the second time in as many weeks the committee has addressed the plan. But unlike the last hearing, Wednesday’s debate saw Missoula Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks air a number of concerns related to the document.

“I have some concerns about the plan – I have concerns about the data,” Jenks said. “The data is wrong. That’s not something that should reflect on the people that have tried to compile the data, but rather, that the database isn’t built to create the kind of data you need for this analysis.”

The 121-page report dives deep into local and national statistics, best practices and alternatives to incarceration, including a greater emphasis on intervention. It aims to address jail overcrowding by looking at other ways to handle offenders or shorten their stay behind bars.

But Jenks said the plan includes a number of flaws by confusing county inmates with Municipal Court inmates. It also confuses bonds with fines, and it blends offenses that warrant jail with those that do not.

On one page, Jenks said, the plan suggests that 12 percent of the jail’s inmates are from the Montana Department of Corrections waiting to be moved, while on a later page, it places the number at 9 percent.

Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley, one of the plan’s primary sponsors, defended the data.

“The data is not inaccurate,” she said. “It just doesn’t give us all the tools we need to get to the bottom of these problems. The first recommendation is to collect better data, but it’s not like it’s wildly inaccurate or anything. You need to be careful when you start throwing bombs like that.”

Jenks said she had other concerns with the plan, including its perceived attempt to dictate how elected judges control their courts and cases. The plan appears to pressure the courts into not enforcing the law, she said.

“I have some serious concerns also with the language directing the courts to do this or that, or not do this or that,” Jenks said. “I would have preferred that the options be offered as tools, not as something that seems to be a mandatory requirement on the part of the court. That does disturb me.”

If jail were removed from the court as a tool, Jenks said, some offenders would disregard the court’s instructions. While the plan recommends a long list of alternatives to jail, none of them will work if jail is removed as a more severe penalty, she added.

“If I tell someone to do 20 hours of community service and they don’t, and I don’t have any teeth behind that, they’ll just walk away,” Jenks said. “If I don’t have jail to back this up, then it’s unenforceable.”

As it stands, Jenks said, the court is somewhat limited in its penalties due to the lack of space at the Missoula County Detention Center. While the plan seeks to address overcrowding, Jenks said it should be up to the court to make the ultimate decision on whether jail is warranted.

“The handcuffing is coming from the space available at the jail, and to some degree, from an institutionalized attitude from the jail that Municipal Court beds are a waste of space and shouldn’t be there,” Jenks said. “We get a lot of pressure from the jail to not use the jail. As this plan has developed and been out there, some of that pressure and backlash has increased against the court.”

Bentley, along with several other council members, said the plan wasn’t intended to serve as an expert document written by industry insiders, but rather one that looks to guide policy and budgeting discussions at the city and county level.

“The reason why we have master plans is, when we’re making budget decisions, we have more framework to make those decisions,” Bentley said. “Having plans like this help us leverage more funding from the state. Having a plan adopted by local governing bodies is very helpful.”

The plan has also created an ongoing spat between Bentley and Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins. Last week, Bentley asked Wilkins to reveal his “conflict of interest” when discussing the plan.

“I have a conflict of interest?” Wilkins replied.

“Were you going to address that?” Bentley stated.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Wilkins said. “I think this whole thing is flawed, so yeah, I guess I have a conflict of interest.”

Their disagreement continued on Wednesday when Wilkins abstained from voting, allowing the plan to pass unanimously despite his concerns. In doing so, he asked to place the issue on the City Council’s committee reports, which the committee chair agreed to do.

However, Bentley suggested that proper procedure for a unanimous vote required the item to be placed on the consent agenda, which receives no further debate. That prompted Wilkins to change his vote from an abstention to a “no” vote, placing the item back for possible debate.

“The data is wrong, and I don’t think you can have a good plan if you don’t have the right data so you can actually know what you’re doing,” Wilkins said. “It doesn’t talk about what we already do that the city or county is paying for. That’s a little disturbing to me.”

Bentley again disagreed, suggesting that Wilkins hadn’t read the plan in its entirety.

Others supported the plan despite their concerns.

“I’m hoping we keep this as a living document and keep working on it, and work with you (Jenks) and other judges in the community to improve the situation for everyone,” said Ward 4 council member Jon DiBari.

Contact Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com