Edwards limits jail admissions due to overcrowding
Cascade County Sheriff Bob Edwards sent a letter Monday afternoon announcing that he’d no longer accept offenders for non-violent misdemeanor warrants or non-violent misdemeanors due to overcrowding.
On Monday, the jail population was 531 in a facility built to house 360. On Tuesday morning the number had dropped to 511.
People being held at the jail, whether awaiting trial or having been sentenced, are sleeping on floors, sharing bathrooms and tensions are high, Edwards told The Electric Tuesday morning.
“You get a situation like that, it gets very volatile,” he said. “We have to do something.”
In his letter to the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, Great Falls Police Department, Montana Highway Patrol and Montana Parole and Probation, Edwards wrote that he would not accept those offenders “due to the extremely high inmate population at the Cascade County Detention Center and my concern for the safety of my officers and the safety and security of the facility.”
He will accept all felony offenses and violent crimes.
“This isn’t a free-for-all for criminals to run amok in Cascade County,” he said Tuesday morning.
In his letter, Edwards states that all first offense DUI’s will be booked and released with a court date set the day after release. He added that “all first time DUI’s will have to attempt to bond out prior to release.”
All second or subsequent DUIs will be booked and held with a bond set, Edwards wrote.
Edwards said the overcrowding at the jail has not been helped by a law passed by the legislature last year that limited law enforcement’s ability to arrest for certain misdemeanor offenses.
Edwards said 150 beds are reserved for holding state prisoners, leaving 208 beds for the county jail.
Of those, 168 are pre-trial as of Tuesday morning. Edwards said one person in the jail has been waiting two years to get an evaluation at the Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs so his legal case could move forward. Edwards said there are people awaiting trial for cases from 2016, 2017 and 2018 currently in the jail.
Edwards said he could turn away all of the state or federal inmates to make room for local offenders, but since those agencies pay for holding people, Edwards said that generates revenue for the jail, accounting for a significant chunk of the their budget since they only get $1.2 million from the county for jail operations.
“We just need to slow the flow to get it under control,” he said. “It’s not a safe place right now.”
This is the highest number of people in the jail he’s seen in his time as sheriff, but said the jail had been over capacity since he took office in 2011.
Edwards copied Great Falls Municipal Judge Steve Bolstad; Justice of the Peace Judges Mary Jolley and Steve Fagenstrom and District Court Judges John Parker, Elizabeth Best, John Kutzman and Greg Pinski.
Reaction to the letter was swift from judges and the city. None had been notified of Edward’s plan and many expressed frustration with the lack of discussion but also noting an understanding of the sheriff’s predicament.
City Attorney Sara Sexe was drafting a response letter Tuesday morning.
GFPD Dave Bowen told The Electric that he was frustrated but isn’t interesting in pointing fingers, though lawmakers and others have made decisions in recent years that hamstring law enforcement in their ability to make arrests and cutting resources.
That legislation, HB 133, was not supported by Bowen, Great Falls Municipal Judge Steve Bolstad or the City of Great Falls.
Before the law went into effect, Edwards said the jail’s population was 460. Now it’s 511.
“Where is it working,” Edwards said.
It’s not the first time the city has received such a request, Bowen said.
“We have tried to work with their staff in the past by being mindful of who is going to jail and who will be issued a summons to appear in court,” Bowen told The Electric. “It does put us in a difficult position when we are not able to arrest individuals who may fall into the ‘lesser’ category of offenses but recognize if we don’t take action now, they will offend at a higher level soon.”
A more concerning issue to Bowen is that the directive reduces Probation and Parole’s ability to enact a 72-hour hold on violators.
The P&P office is already under strict guidelines for when to place a hold on a violator and now the jail is further limiting their ability.
Monday’s armed robbery in Great Falls is a prime example of what can happen, Bowen said, since one of those suspects should have been in jail for violating the terms of his probation/parole.
“We’re ending up with people out on the streets who shouldn’t be out on the streets,” Bowen said.
The overcrowding is part of a larger issue, Bowen said, and difficult questions need to be asked.
“One that comes to mind is what about the surplus in funds taken in from housing federal inmates at the jail? Does that affect our ability to hold prisoners at the local level? Is this a financial decision that is driving safety concerns for our community? Has this issue been discussed with all the stakeholders to determine if alternatives exist prior to making these type of decisions,” Bowen said.
But it’s not just the sheriff’s problem, Bowen said, since lawmakers have made decisions further pressure on public safety and limit resources to deal with substance abuse and mental health.
A stakeholder meeting is scheduled for Friday, Bowen said, but it’s likely to take large community efforts to tackle these larger issues.
“Our city is drowning in drugs. The problems are enormous,” he said.
Judge Steve Bolstad handles Great Falls Municipal Court, which is solely misdemeanor offenses ranging from parking tickets to disorderly conduct to contempt of court to partner or family member assault.
On Monday afternoon, his court had 35 people at the jail for city cases. By Tuesday, he expected that number to drop to 25-32.
Bolstad said his court works to keep the misdemeanor offenders at the jail low, but “the people that we keep up there have already been given multiple chances.”
Pinski told The Electric that Cascade County officials need to start looking at what other counties in Montana are doing to address jail populations through pre-release and other non-confinement programs.
The county should pursue pre-trial programs that are “cost-effective and protect public safety and don’t violate people’s civil liberties,” Pinksi said by phone Monday night.
Pinski said he’s increased participants in drug treatment and veterans court as a way to address underlying issues people may be facing when they find themselves in the justice system. He said the county doesn’t currently fund those programs and “there are people in the Cascade County jail awaiting trial that could be supervised” at a lower cost than keeping them in jail.
Pinski said the recidivism rate for drug treatment court is 15 percent; for veterans court it’s 4 percent and for those coming out of jail it’s 60 percent.
Treatment courts cost an estimated $4,500 annually per participant as compared to an estimated $42,000 per year at the Montana State Prison, Pinski said.
He said that he could have a participant on a drug patch, GPS and alcohol monitoring for roughly $10 per day and other Montana counties are doing such pre-trial programs.
“If we can safely monitor somebody we shouldn’t be keeping them in jail for close to $100 per day,” Pinski said.
If offenders are released unsupervised without an assessment of their flight risk and danger to society, “we are jeopardizing public safety.”
Sheriff Edwards said he’s been having discussions with district judges and others involved in law enforcement related to pre-trial programs and is hoping to expand the 24/7 alcohol monitoring program soon.
But, Edwards said, he doesn’t believe it’s the responsibility of the sheriff’s office to provide pre-trial services in Cascade County.
Edwards said he thinks Probation and Parole should handle those services, but “these are discussions we’re going to have to have.”
Adding an additional District Court judge might help reduce the backup in the court system and move pre-trial detainees quicker, but if more people are sentenced to jail time, it may not reduce the overall jail population, he said.
Cascade County Commissioner Joe Briggs has in the past opposed adding a District Judge since it would require additional office and court space at a cost to the county.
He said Tuesday that in the big picture, “we’ve got to make sure the jail resources are used effectively.”
The county jail can’t remove a judge’s ability to issue a contempt charge for repeat offenders, but if someone is in jail because they haven’t paid their civil fines, “that’s really problematic,” he said.
Briggs said that if people can be kept out of the jail for pre-trial programs or mental health diversions that should happen and those discussions are ongoing.
“There’s a lot of players in this mix,” he said.
The issue is that there’s no facility in the community to hold or treat people fall into those categories or case managers to ensure they’re receiving proper treatment and staying on track.
A bigger jail would require a public vote and additional taxes, which Briggs said he didn’t feel the taxpayers currently have an appetite for.
“This is all going on at a time when the state is cutting resources,” he said.
The community also needs to look at ways to divert juvenile offenders and keep them from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.
But government isn’t the answer to all of these issues, Briggs said, and echoed GFPD Chief Bowen’s thought that it will take larger community involvement, particularly in addressing mental health issues.
“That’s not an area we are well equipped to deal with,” he said.