Unintended Consequences of Jail Diversion

by William Skink

The County Detention facility on Mullan road is overcrowded. It’s a bad situation getting worse with no easy fix. There are a lot of good people looking at this issue right now, but I’m afraid well-intentioned efforts are going to have unexpected consequences.

It’s with that in mind that I read an op-ed by Martin Judnich. The first flag for me is his recommendation we repeat California prison reform. Montana is not California, no matter how many Californian’s flee here to escape. The situation in California is not analogous with Montana, not to mention there hasn’t been much time to even evaluate what impact passing Proposition 47 last November has had on California prisons and jails.

Here is Judnich describing why Montana should follow California’s lead:

Montana should follow California’s lead in reducing criminal penalties to free up jail and prison space. California faced constant overcrowding of its jails for decades, resulting in the early release of prisoners and jail inmates in almost all cases. In 2014, the state of California passed Proposition 47 reducing penalties for some non-violent crimes, and most importantly, personal use drug crimes. This didn’t affect serious and violent crimes; instead it focused on property crimes such as theft, forgery, issuing bad checks and personal use drug crimes. Drug crimes such as distribution or manufacturing, where large amounts are involved, remained serious felonies, but in cases where personal use of any drug was involved, the crime is a misdemeanor where jail is not recommended and treatment alternatives are the norm. In Montana, the vast majority of personal use drug crimes are felonies, not misdemeanors.

Similarly now in California, for property and theft crimes, jail is not recommended and alternatives such as community service and restitution is ordered. This reduction results in freeing up jail and prison room and requires non-custodial sentences for crimes that can be dealt with in drug treatment and jail alternatives instead of a jail cell.

Sounds nice and all, but there are problems when you start digging into this. The first problem is treatment alternatives. What are they here in Missoula? Share House has 18 beds for co-occurring and homeless individuals. Recovery Center Missoula, if you can afford it, has, I believe, 16 beds for inpatient treatment, but its services really aren’t for the types of addicts clogging up the jail. If you can afford upwards of $30,000 dollars for treatment, you can afford to bond out of jail. You can also probably afford a lawyer to keep you out of jail.

There are some other outpatient options, but it’s limited. If jail diversion is going to be successful, increasing treatment options has to be a part of it, otherwise keeping addicts out of jail will simply result in giving them more opportunities to harm themselves and others with the behavior that results from their addictions.

The other alternatives mentioned—community services and restitution—also sound good, but I’m skeptical. A good portion of the jail population are poor. If they don’t have a few hundred bucks to bond out, what are the chances they have the resources to provide restitution? With community service, my question is how do you effectively compel someone to follow through? If there isn’t the threat of jail for non-compliance, then it won’t work. If jail is the consequences for not completing community service, then, guess what, there will be plenty of people who won’t or can’t follow through for any number of reasons. So back into jail they will go.

Judnich concludes his op-ed with this:

Recidivism is the concept that criminal offenders return to the system and to jail. If we want to stop recidivism in relation to drug crimes involving user amounts of drugs, let’s use our existing systems of drug courts and treatment-based resolution instead of jail beds. We can help with the overcrowding situation, and actually help some people with their real problems, not just hold them in a cell until we release them back to the same patterns of behavior.

The existing systems of drug courts and treatment-based resolution are ALREADY not sufficient to meet the current volume of people. Diverting more people to inadequate systems simply won’t work.

Part of Missoula’s jail overcrowding problem is a result of the population growth that has happened since the jail was built in 1999. Automatically dismissing the need to build another pod, imo, is short-sighted.

Instead what I’m afraid is going to happen is well-intentioned changes in sentencing will be made, more treatment options and easier access to those treatment won’t happen, and the jobs of first responders on the streets and in hospital ERs will get more dangerous.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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2 Responses to Unintended Consequences of Jail Diversion

  1. Greg Strandberg says:

    What’s it been, 3 weeks since that jail meeting at the Double Tree? I don’t think that report is supposed to be done until December, and then what? After all, it’s just a report.

    We need action. It’s clear the sheriff can’t do anything and the county commission can’t either. They have no money for a jail, they have no money to pay the treatment centers, they have no power at all. All they can do is meet.

    The power lies with the governor and the legislature. We could see Bullock call a special session or get those interim committees meeting.

    But he chooses to do nothing. He did set up the Galen asylum, and we are talking about buying back one of the private prisons so the state can control it.

    I like that last idea, as Missoula County is currently holding, what – about 25 to 50 inmates for the state so they can make $3.5 million a year?

    McDermott said that they need that $3.5 million. Well, give it to them and take their prisoners and put them in the new public prison that we’re going to take over.

    I’m sick of the state hoarding all these funds and not giving them to the counties. I’m sick of the feds sending all our money overseas and not giving it to the states.

    We need to fix things in this county, in this state, and in this country. Let’s start talking about spending the money at the state level, sending it to the counties. Let’s talk about closing our international borders and spending our money at home.

  2. steve kelly says:

    Are we not experiencing the real cost of bankruptcy? What money? Is debt money?

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