A Pandemic Power Shift From Courts To Jail/County Gate Keepers? Yes, Says Judge Jenks

by Travis Mateer

There are shifting dynamics of power happening right now that people outside the criminal justice system can’t appreciate, and a headline like Missoula County inmate resolution leaves judge frustrated is just the tip of the iceberg.

The frustrated judge is Kathleen Jenks, someone I first wrote about in 2012 as the blogger “lizard” at 4 & 20 Blackbirds. Back then I was bringing attention to how this new judge was setting a new tone and part of that was negatively impacting the funding for treatment courts. I was not a fan of Jenks in those early days, but my opinion has evolved.

Over the years I have continued to touch on policy impacts and societal ills when it comes to the courts, like this post about mean drunks and tax cuts (2014), this post about jail overcrowding (2016), and this one about our Mayor NOT prioritizing criminal justice reform (2018).

My time working at the shelter is important to reference here because that work put me in repeated contact with the “frequent flyers” that so confounded Judge Jenks and service providers like myself.

As I increasingly ran into unstable people not acting in the safest manner, like the guy on meth who physically attacked me behind the Union Gospel Mission when they were still serving people by the train tracks, I came to appreciate the need for a metaphorical stick as I was dodging the metaphorical carrots being thrown in my face.

I don’t mean to infantilize grown-ass adults by saying it’s similar to dealing with kids, but it’s similar to dealing with kids. Awards and positive reinforcement are great and all, but sometimes kids are OUT OF CONTROL and they NEED the proverbial stick.

Nine years ago the shift at the municipal court went from too much leniency with “Let ‘Em Go” Louden to too much rigidity with getting Jenk’d, but since then Jenks has found ways to work within diversion programs, as funding allows.

But then the pandemic came along, and things changed. From the first link:

There are nearly 200 adults in the Missoula County Detention Center right now, but a Missoula judge says the pandemic has impacted her ability to put offenders behind bars.

“Things are really, really, really difficult right now for both the lower courts but specifically Municipal Court,” Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks said. “The county is refusing to hold our people.”

That’s because of a resolution passed by Missoula County commissioners last March. It says the jail will no longer take those charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, nor those arrested for failing to appear in court, and it’s all because of COVID-19.

The pandemic has given the County, which runs the jail, a golden opportunity to deal with long-simmering jail overcrowding problems and funding disputes with the State by declaring non-violent offenders and fail-to-appearers as non-jail-able. And this where the shift in power comes in (my emphasis):

Jenks tells us it’s gutted the ability to function as a court, and she’s concerned it will stick around longer than expected.

“I think that back in March that made sense in an emergency situation, but we are in this for the long haul now, and its causing a lot of issues, and I think it’s putting the community at risk in a lot of ways,” said Jenks.

Slotnick says he doesn’t think the resolution is putting the community at risk.

Jenks says people are only showing up for their hearings 30% of the time, because they know no one will come get them if they don’t.

She adds control now rests with the Sheriff’s Office, not the courts.

I think that is a remarkable statement for a judge to be making, but I understand where Jenks is coming from.

I also think I understand where this is all going, but that’s for another post.

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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