by William Skink
Juxtaposing the jail overcrowding crisis with the effort to relocate refugees to Missoula provides the perfect contrast between things that get done and things that get talked about.
Soft Landing was created in September, 2015. Within a year they had met their initial goals and were moving full steam ahead:
This week marks a year that the organization Soft Landing Missoula was created with the goal of bringing refugees to Missoula, which has been a topic of controversy throughout the state.
In that year, Soft Landing achieved their goal. An International Rescue Committee field office reopened and last week Missoula received their second group of refugees, another family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It only took a year to go from idea to families arriving. That’s impressive. And for the refugee families, the barriers that keep housing-insecure people already in our community from accessing stable housing just disappeared. No income, no credit, no rental history, no cosigner? No problem.
Also in September of 2015, Missoula’s leaders got together at the Double Tree Inn to discuss the initial alternatives to jail from a flurry of listening sessions done with local stakeholders. The master plan was still in the works (at a final cost of $40,000 dollars) and was unveiled to the public in April of this year.
So what’s happening with the plan? According to this article from Missoula Current, Municipal Court pushback and City Council infighting. From the link:
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.”
Not only is Judge Jenks contesting the accuracy of the data, she is also concerned that her ability to impose jail time as a consequence is going to be taken away from Municipal Court:
“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.
So how did one of the architects of this master plan, Emily Bentley, respond to this pushback?
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.”
So, as refugees prepare for their first winter, our city leaders can’t even agree if the data in this master plan is accurate or not. But Bentley wasn’t done lashing out, and her next target was her fellow council person, Jon Wilkins:
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.”
The conflict I think Bentley is referring to is the fact that Jon’s wife, Sue Wilkins, runs the pre-release center, and the pre-release center refused to provide their data for this master plan. There are some interesting rumors floating around about what might be going on behind the scenes, and clearly this is about to come out in some form.
It’s been over a year since city leaders began examining this problem in detail. $40,000 dollars was spent to create a master plan that contains questionable data, according to the Municipal Court. The lack of cooperation from the pre-release center and the potential conflict of interest of a city council person further erodes confidence that our city leaders have a firm grasp of what the problems fueling the overcrowding even are.
Those working within this systemic crisis, and those being chewed up by it, deserve better than this.