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Missoula Municipal Court candidates agree on jail diversion, need for wet housing

Sitting Missoula Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks, and challenger Brendan McQuillan, a former public defender turned prosecutor, discuss their views of the Jail Diversion Master Plan and the city’s need for housing to accommodate intoxicated transients at a forum on Tuesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The two candidates seeking to serve as Missoula Municipal Court judge both support elements of the Jail Diversion Master Plan, and on Tuesday they both agreed the city must look at ways to deal with intoxicated transients in the downtown district.

Missoula’s candidates for mayor also weighed in.

Members of the Missoula Downtown Association posed the issue of incarceration, its costs, and ways to address the issues surrounding intoxicated or troublesome transients during a noontime forum held at Providence St. Patrick Hospital.

Judge Kathleen Jenks, the incumbent municipal court judge, and challenger Brendan McQuillan, who prosecutes domestic violence and sexual abuse cases, both stated their qualifications to serve as municipal court judge.

They both agreed that finding options to jail are worthy of the court’s highest position.

“We already do a lot of things in my court to look at jail diversion,” said Jenks. “One of those is community service. I frequently use community service as a sanction instead of jail.”

McQuillan agreed that options other than jail were available to the court.

“I believe we have to absolutely embrace a compassionate approach to those people with acute mental health crisis and with drug addiction, and that non-violent offenders should not be put in jail because it only entrenches the problem,” said McQuillan.

The Jail Diversion Master Plan, written by a panel of city and county leaders and other experts in the field, looks to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders held in the local jail, in part to reduce overcrowding and beat back some of the underlying socioeconomic issues at play.

In 2015, more than 4,200 individuals were booked into the county jail, with 83 percent of them on nonviolent charges. It currently costs $108 a day to house an inmate, and local taxpayers are picking up a larger portion of that due to cuts at the state level.

Jenks, who helped provide recommendations to the plan, has been critical of the document in the past. She maintained that position on Tuesday, saying that while she supports the plan in concept, her concerns linger.

“They used a lot of really bad data and came up with some bad conclusions,” said Jenks. “They also neglected, in my view, something really significant, and that’s voluntary treatment beds for people who aren’t necessarily in jail, but treatment that could keep them from coming to court if they could get it voluntarily.”

As written, the 121-page plan directs the city and county to work more closely with area health-care providers. It urges local law enforcement officials to provide crisis intervention training to patrol officers, and ensure that each shift has one trained officer on duty.

Implementing elements of the plan has been placed at more than $1 million, a cost that’s not easily overcome. The City Council was forced to table several program requests this year due to their associated costs, but pledged to peck away at them as funding allowed.

“A lot of it requires an awful lot of money,” McQuillan said. “I think it’s very, very important that when we look at the system of criminal justice, it’s always an issue of triage.”

The Jail Diversion Master Plan also identifies gaps in local services, including the city’s lack of a social detox facility. It also identifies the lack of a homeless shelter for those under the influence of drugs or alcohol, who comprise roughly 35 percent of the nonviolent inmate population, according to the report.

Jenks said the city lacks options for the intoxicated transients taken off the street. Creating “wet housing” for those who are inebriated could help address the problem, though doing so won’t come cheap.

“It’s cheaper to society – not necessary to the taxpayers – when you get these people out of the emergency room and out of the jail and into housing they’re comfortable with that they will stay in,” said Jenks.

While the position of judge can’t alone create wet housing, McQuillan believes the job can play a leadership role in pushing to build it. While he believes elements of the community would resist the costs, identifying the true financial and social impacts could overcome that.

“That’s where I’d see the leadership position in the court go,” said McQuillan. “We can also address that from the individual level in the court where if a person is actively working a job, actively working a treatment program, we don’t need to use the heavy-handed stick of the jail in the end to incentivize them.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen said many of the questions at play Tuesday are written into the city’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.

The team behind that plan, which includes the United Way of Missoula County and the Poverello Center, has identified many of the barriers and opportunities, including the creation of the Office on Housing and Community Development, headed by Eran Pehan – the former director of the Poverello.

As it stands, Engen said, emergency responders can only take an intoxicated transient to the emergency room or to jail, and both come with enormous costs to taxpayers. The Poverello doesn’t accept those who’ve been drinking or on drugs.

“The only way to get fixed is to participate in a treatment program, and still some of those folks aren’t going to get fixed,” Engen said. “But they’ll have the dignity of a roof over their head, the dignity of a meal and the dignity of wrap-around services. We don’t have that facility or that opportunity today, but I think in a couple of years, we will.”

Lisa Triepke, who’s challenging Engen for his seat as mayor, said the issue of homelessness has come up throughout her campaign. She believes homelessness falls into three categories, including those with mental illness, those on hard times and those who choose the lifestyle and don’t want help.

While she said she wasn’t yet in a position to offer a solution to the challenge, she believes better communication between organizations working on the issue would be a good place to start.

“There are other groups in Missoula that are trying to reach out and find solutions to the homeless issues,” said Triepke. “If we can get all those groups to the same table and collectively come up with a solution and put their brains together – instead of people working separately to come up solutions – if we all communicate with the other stakeholders, we can make some progress.”

Other municipal candidates also weighed in. You can view their comments in a video on the Missoula Current’s Facebook page.