Voices: To protect all Missoulians from this pandemic, consider our jail

In Missoula County, and other cities and counties across the country, local justice systems are responding meaningfully and compassionately to ensure all communities are adequately protected from the spread of the coronavirus. Safely reducing jail populations is not only critical at this time to safeguard public health, but also helps our justice system be more effective, efficient, and fair in the long-term.

Various colleagues working across our local justice system — including law enforcement, the county attorney, public defender, detention center staff, judges, and members of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council — have collaborated to reduce Missoula County Detention Facility’s population by 50% within the last month.

Reducing the jail population requires a high degree of care and consideration. The safety of crime victims and the community is of highest concern and the cornerstone of our evaluation process. While we understand Missoulians may feel concerned or uncertain, we know that safely releasing people from jail is the right decision to protect our community.

Local jails are a particularly vulnerable hot spot for COVID-19 infections as social distancing is not feasible. Carefully releasing low-risk individuals ensures incarcerated individuals, people who work in the jail, and the broader community are less at risk of infection. In the interest of public health and safety, our local justice system has prioritized releasing people charged with non-violent offenses who are awaiting trial and incarcerated people at the end of their sentence.

Numerous jurisdictions across the country have taken similar actions to proactively address this pandemic. The alternative is potentially worse as some detention facilities in Ohio and Michigan, for example, have seen the virus quickly spread to more than half of their confined populations. This is not an acceptable outcome as it unnecessarily endangers lives and strains our limited resources.

The careful reduction of the county jail population also has a two-fold economic benefit to the community. First, there is the cost savings from having to house, feed, and provide medical treatment for fewer inmates. This money can be redirected to other critical county programs, including pandemic response.

Second, much of the jail population is of working age and have jobs, families, and homes. Allowing them to return to their jobs, families, and homes, under supervision, will help reduce the economic impact on them and speed the economic recovery that everyone desires.

In order to sustain these benefits, we must remain committed to local reform efforts that make our justice system safer and more equitable, even after this crisis. These efforts include strategies to prevent over-incarceration, as well as reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.

As part of this commitment, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council executive team continues to meet to discuss strategies to address case backlogs, as well as reflect on how our COVID-19 response can inform future plans. The Council has identified immediate needs to expand crisis response in rural areas, address increases in domestic and family violence, prevent increases in drug related offenses, and evaluate current systems for holding people in jail while they await trial.

As we work together to mitigate this pandemic, we must remember our collective goal: to ensure the health and safety of all Missoulians, which includes all constituencies impacted by our local justice system.

District Court Judge Leslie Halligan, Chair of Missoula County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and CJCC Executive Committee members: Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick; Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott; Missoula County Attorney Kirsten H. Pabst; Regional Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Streano; Missoula County Justices of the Peace Landee Holloway and Alex Beal.