This letter is to give a different, multi-faceted approach to the jail issue that is in the news. This approach is based on 30 years in law enforcement, two terms as your Lake County sheriff and now a term as one of your Lake County commissioners.
Sheriffs as far back as Joe Geldrich were dealing with a full jail, 1,000 warrants and 1,000 waiting to serve their sentence. The dynamics are a little different but this is not a new issue or your only issue.
We have the largest drug problem in Montana with a jail too small to hold all the suspects. This leads to more crime to fund drug use, causing more people to be arrested and turned away from the jail. The problem continues to grow. A new 200-bed detention center is approximately $20 million, medical costs triple to $1 million annually and jail budget approximately triples to $3.5 million annually.
We have to build a new district courtroom and offices requiring a Courthouse Annex for displaced offices, $10 million, the courtroom remodel, $5 million. Clerk of Court budget doubles.
The construction projects, totaling approximately $35 million spread over 20 years, would increase taxes on a $300,000 property $120 annually. Increasing the operating budget $5.5 million would be an additional $350 and would rise annually, for a total increase of $470 per year.
I’d like to investigate building a small three-story addition to the west side of the courthouse. This would give us approximately 20 dormitory-style beds, attorney/client rooms, medical rooms and a new kitchen. It would also provide room for the courtroom and offices, Clerk of Court and Justice Court space with very little remodeling in the current building.
I would start an aggressive home arrest program clearing hundreds of warrants and sentences to be served annually. I would start a county garden where individuals would serve sentences without being incarcerated. The produce could then be given to the food banks.
The No. 1 problem that’s driving all these issues? Illegal drugs! A new 200-plus bed jail will be full in six months with a waiting list if not dealt with! We need a secure treatment facility! There are six- and nine-month drug treatment programs that are very effective but clients need to be incarcerated. Not in a high-risk jail but a safe, secure facility capable of holding 20-30 individuals. This could be built much cheaper and working with the Drug Court to help make productive citizens instead of state convicts.
Drugs are a problem for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes also. Many of the individuals in our justice system are tribal members on felony drug-related charges. We need to work together for positive treatment alternatives and solutions. I would work to gain their support and participation in this facility and its benefits.
I believe these suggestions can be accomplished at about one-third the overall costs we are looking at. Working with CSKT there would be a greater opportunity for funding assistance. Our tax increase will be smaller with a realistic opportunity to reduce the long-term issues.
We can’t bet it all on a big jail! We need a creative multi-faceted solution!
Barron, a Polson Republican, is a Lake County commissioner and former sheriff.