by William Skink
I’m confused. The Missoula Current recently reported that County Commissioners needed an ordinance to “deter aggressive transients” at the Missoula Development Park. From the link:
At the request of several property owners, Missoula County commissioners have implemented an ordinance banning overnight camping at the Missoula Development Park, and they’re urging others to notify the sheriff’s office of any violators.
Several local businesses, including the AT&T call center and 836 Technologies, said overnight transients have left behind waste and garbage, and have harassed their employees.
“There are several problems with overnight camping – the transients,” said Brian Freeman of 836 Technologies. “They’re not actual campers, as we all know. Trash, crime and raw sewage is often left behind. These people don’t work in the area, and don’t do anything to bring businesses into the area. It creates problems with our employees.”
I find this confusing for two reasons. The first is an assumption that the effort seven years ago by County Commissioners to end the Occupy encampment would apply here. Don’t remember that effort? Well, here’s a helpful article to remind you:
Occupy Missoula will have to find new digs.
Missoula County commissioners listened to two hours of often fervent testimony Wednesday, most of it opposing a ban on camping, then quickly passed a resolution that makes it criminal trespass to sleep overnight on county property without a permit.
The statute, which also prohibits the placement or erection of structures unless the county says it’s OK, took effect immediately.
So, if this old resolution ”makes it criminal trespass to sleep overnight on county property without a permit”, why is another law needed to address this?
The second reason this story baffles me is this: why can’t already existing laws, like laws against littering and broad misdemeanor statues, like disorderly conduct, be effective tools for law enforcement? Cite these people for littering, or for disorderly conduct, then when they don’t show up to court, or pay their fine, a bench warrant will be issued.
I’m not actually all that confused about this situation. To address this very small percentage of “transients” (a term I hate) who display aggressive, anti-social behavior, the criminal justice system needs to have a strong stick/carrot approach. The carrot of help, whether treatment or even just case management, was not adequate to begin with, and still hasn’t rebounded from the cruel cuts imposed by cruel politicians. That’s a problem.
The other problem is the consequential stick of the criminal justice system has also transformed, and doesn’t really impact this small transient population. For most of us fines are pretty effective for changing behavior. If we don’t pay the fine, we could have credit issues or a bench warrant for our arrest.
But what if you don’t care whether or not you end up in jail? And what if you have nothing left, financially, to take or ruin? Then, instead of the stick hurting you, the anti-social transient with mental health and/or addiction issues, you become the stick hurting and clogging up the criminal justice system.
Because this is the reality on the ground, and because decision makers and purse-string pullers don’t want to deal with this difficult reality, what we are seeing is a classic move called “passing the buck”. In this case it’s the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department passing the buck to the County Commissioners.
The Commissioners can pass all the new laws they want, it won’t change the fundamental reality that carrots to create positive incentive to change are virtually non-existent, and sticks to create negative consequences to deter bad behavior have been greatly diminished by issues like jail overcrowding.
My suggestion to those dealing with aggressive, threatening behavior in this area of Missoula is to carry a big can of pepper spray and be prepared to use it. Because of the dynamics described in this post I believe the trend is for law enforcement to be more and more hands-off because the financial cost of intervening in every situation where an unstable person is acting threatening is not a cost we, as a community, apparently can afford.