Jail remains full, sheriff’s directive still in effect, city officials seeing impact through increased warrants
Sheriff Bob Edwards’ decision in July to limit admissions to the Cascade County Adult Detention Center because of overcrowding highlighted the many challenges facing law enforcement — substance abuse, crime and poverty to name a few.
The Electric has interviewed judges, county attorneys, law enforcement and addiction and prevention specialists and has gone on four ride-alongs with the Great Falls Police Department and Cascade County Sheriff’s Office to gain perspective on what patrol officers face.
We’ve identified some overarching causes of crime in our community and efforts to find solutions. The Electric will continue to focus on these issues and provide coverage on causes, trends, challenges and solutions.
Justice system and pre-trial
In July, Sheriff Bob Edwards said the jail population was at 531, well over its capacity of 360. To safeguard jail staff and inmates, Edwards said he would not accept people on non-violent misdemeanor charges until they could reduce the jail population.
Edwards has said he will accept violent offenders.
His July 23 memo said he would not take people on charges of theft, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, among others. His directive also said he wouldn’t take people on non-violent misdemeanor warrants.
As of Sept. 6, the population was 445 and directive was still in effect, though Commander Dan O’Fallon, jail commander, said they will accept people on warrants or misdemeanor charges.
“We have never refused anybody that any organization brought to us, no matter the charge,” O’Fallon said.
But that hasn’t been shared with the city and City Attorney Sara Sexe said the last communication she received from Edwards or the CCSO was Aug. 15. In that email, Edwards stated he would take those sentenced or ordered to jail and that he would get back to Sexe’s other concerns, but has not.
In Sexe’s initial Aug. 15 email, she told Edwards “as we expected, the mandate has resulted in certain individuals acting as if they are above the law. Even if they are cited, they believe they cannot be arrested, so there is no incentive for them to appear in court or change their behavior. These individuals continue their disruptive behavior and rack up numerous charges, to the great frustration of officers, prosecutors, court and the public.”
That has become apparent in Municipal Court where Judge Steve Bolstad has seen a dramatic increase in warrants being issued, unpaid bonds and few people appearing in his court.
County Attorney Josh Racki said there are two types of people in jail — bad people who don’t qualify for pre-trial programs and those incarcerated for lower level felonies who can’t afford to pay bond.
Currently there aren’t many people in jail on failure to pay, since it’s not economically sound to have people sitting out fines in jail, he said.
Many of those in the Cascade County jail have not yet been sentenced, Racki said.
As of Sept. 6, there were 162 pre-trial people plus about 30 on probation/parole who were out but committed a new offense or violations the terms of their release.
There were 51 federal pre-trial holds from the U.S. Marshals, plus one hold for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and one from the Bureau of Prisons who was federally sentenced and awaiting transport, according to Commander O’Fallon.
And until convicted, Americans have a constitutional right to a presumption of innocence, but there are those who law enforcement and the justice system deem to be a danger or flight risk and are ordered to be held in jail.
Criminal justice is also glacially slow. Racki said it takes about a year for a felony case to go trial. DNA testing and fingerprinting can take six to 10 months before felony cases are placed on the trial calendar.
In mid-August, Racki said his office had four felony cases set for trial. One was a 2016 case, two were 2017 cases and one was from 2018. His office has about 10 prosecutors, but some are assigned to specialty courts, and when they’re assigned to a case in court, that takes up all their time, he said.
There’s discussion of adding a fifth district court judge to reduce caseload, but that would also require a new courtroom, more courthouse staff and at least two new prosecutors, Racki said, at a significant cost to taxpayers.
Racki is a member of the Montana County Attorney Association and said the group is working on a legislative agenda that includes a diversion program similar to drug court — a program that’s already operational in Billings.
Cascade County Commissioners said they’ve asked Racki to research pre-trial programs, gather cost estimates and determine how they would operate in the county.
Commissioner Joe Briggs said they’ve also asked Racki to look at what portion of the jail and court population a diversion program would serve.
A first step to improving jail diversion programs is getting the 24/7 alcohol monitoring program moved from the sheriff’s office on Gore Hill to the Cascade County Courthouse. That move has been in the works for months, and the sheriff’s office said they’re waiting on the county carpenter to build a kiosk to house the money and equipment.
Currently, those in the 24/7 program must visit the sheriff’s office twice a day for monitoring. That can be a safety hazard for those who are walking and presents problems for those with suspended licenses.
The 24/7 program isn’t foolproof, but it’s the cheapest monitoring program and keeps people out of jail.
District Court judges have been concerned about having the program at the sheriff’s office, Judge Elizabeth Best said. Moving it downtown “would be huge,” she said. “But that’s just a baby bite into the pre-trial monitoring.”
Of the roughly 800 felony cases in 2017, Racki said almost all of them involve drugs. There were about 250 felony drug cases last year that dealt exclusively with drugs.
Many of the people committing felonies previously found themselves in front of Judge Steve Bolstad at the city’s Municipal Court for misdemeanor offenses.
In late August, he notified city officials that there had been a dramatic increase in warrants and fines issued out of Municipal Court since Edwards’ July 23 directive.
Jo Griner, the court supervisor, first noticed the impact the sheriff’s jail directive was having on local crime when she noticed that their cash from paid fines was low and that they were running out of space in the area where warrants are filed. If it continues, Bolstad told city officials, the court will need to construct a new area to house those files.
From July 23 to Sept. 5 in 2017, the court issued 103 warrants and $60,387 in bonds. For the same dates in 2018, the court issued 574 warrants and $444,321.85 in bonds.
Bolstad and Griner said those number indicate that people don’t currently fear jail, so they’re emboldened to commit misdemeanor crimes, skip court and not pay fines.
“I sit in court and there’s hardly anybody there,” Bolstad told The Electric. “We knew the word was out. This clinched it.”
He’s not worried about the unpaid fines just yet, but “we’re getting such a glut of warrants. I’m just perplexed.”
Bolstad and Griner said in the past they’d get a call from jail officials to alert them to overcrowding so they could figure out ways to address the situation. They both spoke highly of jail staff and that relationship, but Edwards’ current limit on jail admissions is concerning city officials.
There’s been some public discussion about the jail being full of people who simply can’t pay court fines, but Bolstad said “we give them every opportunity to make extensions because I don’t like filling up the jail.”
Several people had been booked into jail over the last two days on misdemeanors, O’Fallon said, but in most cases, they had a series of charges.
One was booked Wednesday night on three counts of contempt of court from the city, O’Fallon said.
According to city court records, that individual had charges of driving while suspended, including an incident when he hit another driver, hadn’t paid fines in 10 months and wasn’t appearing in court.
A woman was booked Wednesday night and also had a contempt of court charge, as well as third offense theft, parole violation, revocation of parole, a partner family member assault charge, an out of county warrant and a felony theft charge.
Bolstad and Griner said they’re also concerned about the what happens when Edwards lifts his jail admissions restrictions.
“We’re going to be inundated beyond belief,” Griner said. “Warrants are escalating as it is.”
On Sept. 6, Bolstad’s court had 19 people in jail, but some were also being held on felonies. Some of those included downtown regulars who had been picked up on charges related to urinating and defecating on public sidewalks and behind businesses downtown.
Bolstad said that in his experience, both as a judge and in the county attorney’s office, that without accountability or consequences crimes often escalate.
“If people see the small things are being taken care of, they’re less inclined to do the bigger things or keep doing the little things,” Bolstad said. “If there are no repercussions, it’s just going to continue. Jail is the biggest repercussion.”
Municipal Court uses bail bonds, GPS, house arrest and other community monitoring to keep people out of jail whenever possible. He said he’d use the 24/7 alcohol monitoring program more if it was downtown.
“When things are normal, this is a very busy court,” Bolstad said. “This is going to have long, long lasting repercussions.”
On the felony side, the system is backed up with a heavy caseload. Some are released but when they don’t show up for court, they lose the option to be released again, Racki said.
In mid-August, there were about 50 people in jail who would be allowed to get out on pre-trial GPS supervision for $300 per month but can’t afford it, Racki said.
There’s also an effort to divert people to the drug treatment or veterans courts to address underlying addiction, mental health or other issues. Those programs include random drug and alcohol testing with the expectation that participants stay clean or be sent back to jail.
District Court Judge Greg Pinski told The Electric in July that he’s increased participation in drug treatment or veterans courts as a way to address underlying issues. He said the county currently doesn’t fund those programs, which can supervise people 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 released from jail, it’s 60 percent.
Treatment courts cost an estimated $4,500 annually per participant, compared to an estimated $42,000 per year at the Montana State Prison, Pinski said.
Pinski told The Electric in July that he could have a participant on a drug patch, GPS and alcohol monitoring for roughly $10 per day.
“If we can safely monitor somebody we shouldn’t be keeping them in jail for close to $100 per day,” Pinski said.
The jail has been overcapacity for years, but expanding it would come at a significant cost to county residents.
“There might be a better option before we expand the jail,” Racki said.
He said the goal is to first try pre-trial programs to see if they ease overcrowding while also protecting public safety.
Judge Best is spearheading a committee, which includes Racki, to address some pre-trial options.
Initially it was focused on moving the 24/7 program to a better location, but has since morphed to explore more options.
She said there’s a large population with addictions and that causes crime.
“You can almost always connect” drugs and crime, she said.
She said pre-trial supervision is being done successfully in many other Montana counties.
According to a 2017 report from Montana Attorney General Tim Fox’s office, a peer recovery support program in Gallatin County diverted people from the emergency department, crisis center and jail, saving the county an estimated $270,000 in 2016.
That program is currently on hiatus awaiting a contract renewal, but is now being implemented in Silver Bow County and eastern Montana.
It costs roughly $80 per day to hold people in the jail, Best said, and the county “could easily save money by addressing a solution in the long-term.”
Best said her group is working with the Office of the Court Administrator at the Montana Supreme Court to join a pilot program with a risk assessment tool. That software helps judges and law enforcement better assess whether a person can be supervised outside of jail.The software also would send reminders of hearings or other appointments. It’s a simple fix to cut down on failures to appear, especially by those with addictions or mental health issues.
“We think we can save money and make the community safer,” Best said. “The people that I meet in court want help. They just don’t know how to get it.”
In Blaine County, Judge Perry Miller presides over the justice court.
He said by the time offenders reach district court judges, they’ve typically been through the lower courts such as his or justice court or municipal court in Cascade County.
About 20 years ago, Miller said he was so frustrated “with the constant barrage of frequent fliers” that he took action.
He wrote a grant to the Montana Board of Crime Control and implemented a compliance officer. The position started in the 1990s as a pilot program and its impact has been “astronomical,” Miller said.
In the first 2.5 years, the position saved Blaine County $1.7 million, Miller told The Electric.
The compliance officer deals with pre-trial and post-conviction conditions, making sure people pay their fines, comply with alcohol monitoring and appear in court.
Miller sets the conditions and uses alcohol monitoring devices. He worked with the sheriff to split costs so the court could purchase 20 SCRAM alcohol monitoring devices.
Miller said under their program, there’s a $4.15 daily monitoring fee. They can put a SCRAM device on a person starting at $8 per day. For those who can’t afford the fees, but who court officials know are staying sober, Miller said they charge only the $4.15 monitoring fee.
They also have the option of using house arrest. All those programs are significantly cheaper than the $67 per day it costs to house inmates.
Miller said it’s worth it to hire a person to handle monitoring for $35,000 a year and save the county $1 million annually.
Blaine County also has decreased its recidivism rate by 43 percent, Miller said, through the compliance officer and pre-trial/post-conviction programs.
“It can be done. It can be reduced,” Miller said. “And it can be done at a savings.”
Pre-trial programs and supervision can remove people from bad situations and can turn their lives around, Miller said.
“We get people that go to work and get a full-time job. They go to college because they’re sober for the first time or have improved health because they’re sober,” Miller said.
The first time a person fails to comply with a condition ordered by the court they go to jail for five days. The second time they fail to comply, it’s 15 days and the third time is 30 days or possibly for an entire sentence, Miller said.
“If you had to be in the same 10-by-10 room with three other women for a week, what do you think your disposition would be,” Miller said. “Jail is not designed to make you as comfortable as you possibly can be.”
Blaine County pays $400 a day to Valley County for housing eight inmates, a rate that’s up for renegotiation soon. They used to pay $67 a day to Hill County for each inmate housed in their jail. They averaged 10 inmates per day. That’s about $146,000 annually to Valley County and $244,550 to Hill County.
Pre-trial and post-conviction programs keep that cost lower and allow people to work and go to school. Kids are able to live at home in a situation that’s less disruptive, Miller said.
The compliance office can call people in, giving them 24 hours to appear. If they don’t, the court can issue a warrant. Miller said about 90 percent come in and explain their absence. The compliance officer can make a recommendation for revocation and send them back to jail or make a plan to address the issue.
“Now, that person isn’t in jail and isn’t taking up space. They’re out, they’re sober, they’re clean,” Miller said. “You’d be amazed how well they function when not drunk or high and start becoming a viable member of the community.”
But that can’t happen without money, Miller said, and counties must have foresight to make those decisions.
At the center of much of the crime in our community is drug use.
“Drugs have negative consequences beyond just that person who’s doing drugs,” Officer Clint Houston of the Great Falls Police Department said. “Substance abuse touches all of us.”
“We have to start looking at substance abuse disorders and addiction differently,” Houston said. “It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s all of ours. It benefits all of us to be invested in a solution.”
Prevention is the best use of funds, Houston said, but treatment and enforcement are also needed.
Jail has a place, Houston said, but they also must find treatment for those who are ready since putting people in jail won’t address their addiction.
At GFPD, four detectives, a detective sergeant and a detective lieutenant are assigned specifically to intercept and dismantle the supply of illegal drugs into the community.
In 2017, that task force, which includes other local, state and federal agencies, seized 30 pounds of meth, “which is huge,” Houston said.
People use about a half a gram to a gram of meth per day, Houston said. There are about 453 grams per pound, equating to about 13,590 doses of meth seized last year.
“That’s how many doses didn’t get out onto our streets,” Houston said.
Heroin also has been increasing, according to several law enforcement sources.
“It’s a scary trend,” Houston said. “Heroin and meth are some of the most destructive things out there because they just ruin people and cause so much collateral damage around them.”
The Montana Highway Patrol also recently formed criminal interdiction teams that in their first six months have seized 56 pounds of methamphetamine, compared to the 33.5 pounds seized from 2014 to 2016, according to Bryan Lockerby, administrator of the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation.
Jack Hinchman, a deputy with the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, is a member of the local drug task force.
He said the task force works to stop the flow of substances into Great Falls and the associated activity, such as firearms trafficking.
They’re generally not after the lower level drug users, but those higher up the chain who are actually bringing drugs here, Hinchman said.
To do that, “informants are our bread and butter,” he said.
With the help of the County Attorney’s Office, the task force sometimes makes deals so they can get information on higher level targets. Hinchman said not everyone understands that end goal but emphasizes the task force doesn’t cooperate with violent people or those who expose their kids to drugs.
On rare occasions, they have assisted in getting a person out of jail, but they don’t get people out of trouble who victimize other people, Hinchman said.
One of their major issues is problem properties, or those that have become hubs for illegal activity, with or without the property owner’s knowledge.
The city attorney’s office has helped address the issue through code enforcement measures.
Hinchman said they’ll watch a problem property, see who comes and goes and work with informants to gather information. The task force does its best to get into the house, but that requires warrants.
Neighbors get frustrated, he said, since drug use doesn’t necessarily land someone in jail, and it takes time to build a larger case.
Patrol officers and code enforcement officials keep an eye on these properties and start citing them for city code violations, establishing a pattern of behavior.
The city has pursued action against several problem properties over the last year and some have escalated to criminal charges filed in Municipal Court.
The task force has watched one westside property for some time, and the City Commission declared it a public nuisance after the Neighborhood Council submitted a petition with 67 signatures complaining about the property. The property owner also was charged in Municipal Court for theft of city services after someone tapped the water line to the neighboring property.
The property owner was recently arrested for possession of methamphetamine, according to court documents.
In his four years with the drug task force, Hinchman said he’s never seen a meth lab, though a few small ones were discovered in the county. That’s due to the crackdown on ingredients.
There’s a strong correlation between drugs and addiction and crime, according to officials.
Hinchman said people robbing Walmart or convenience stores are often doing so to get money for drugs.
“Nobody goes out and does those things for fun,” Hinchman said.
People are culpable for their behavior and their addictions, Hinchman said, but as a community we “can’t fill the jail with addicts,” he said.
Without treatment, people generally go back to using once they get out.
“I look at them as human beings, I don’t look at them as the dirt on the bottom of my shoe,” Hinchman said.
“They look in the mirror every day and see and feel shame. And the only way to feel better is to get high and that’s the sad part.”
Hinchman said who are committing crimes are really bad people, but many “crimes are rooted in the need to fuel an addiction.”
Houston said GFPD works on community outreach and establishing relationships with community partners such as the Substance Abuse Prevention Alliance, schools, medical community and others to support prevention, treatment and enforcement efforts.
“We’re all intertwined,” Houston said. “We’re all dealing with the same problems.”
GFPD has worked with the Benefis Foundation to supply officers with naloxone, a medication designed to slow the effects of drug overdose. Doctors helped get Narcan, a nasal spray form of naloxone, into schools in Great Falls and the surrounding area.
Easier access to treatment is essential, he said, and treatment courts are making a dent, but there’s a lack of resources at the enforcement, treatment and prevention levels.
“I believe that everybody is doing the best they can with what they have,” Houston said.
Young people start experimenting with drugs as early as age 12 to 14 and alcohol as early as 9, according to GFPD and the local Substance Abuse Prevention Alliance.
Prevention starts with difficult conversations at home. He said he’s shocked by conversations he’s had with people he’s arrested. Many say they started using drugs or alcohol between 8 and 12 years old. Typically, they started with alcohol or marijuana and it escalates from there.
Many say that they first started using alcohol or drugs with a parent or relative.
“That’s why it’s so challenging,” he said.
Houston teaches a street law class with Great Falls Public Schools and runs the GFPD Citizen’s Academy. Those programs educate the public and support prevention efforts. GFPD also partners with GFPS for four school resource officers, who are assigned to the schools and develop relationships with students to address issues early on before they find themselves in the criminal justice system.
But it’s going to take more than GFPD to solve issues related to substance abuse and crime.
GFPD has 88 sworn officers “and we cannot solve this problem alone. This is not solely our weight to carry,” Houston said. “This is a community problem. This is not a GFPD problem. This is our problem.”
Downtown Great Falls is seeing impacts from the sheriff’s jail directive, much of it related to alcohol use and mental health, according to downtown businesses, organizations and GFPD Officer Adam Hunt.
He’s assigned to the downtown area and said that from the end of July through the first week of August, he wrote 31 criminal citations in six days. That’s significantly more than usual, he said, and more than most patrol officers write in a month.
Many of the problems downtown are related to alcoholism and often result in disorderly conduct citations, which was listed in the sheriff’s July 23 memo as an offense that wouldn’t be accepted at the jail.
So he’s doubled down on proactive work, keeping up conversations with people who regularly cause problems.
Many have been convicted of alcohol-related crimes. The conditions of their release prohibit alcohol use so if he catches them drinking, he can take them to Municipal Court and the judge can order them back to jail.
Some of those downtown with addictions have sought help, Hunt said. Whenever possible he connects them with resources, as do members of the Downtown Safety Alliance.
Panhandling is also a constant discussion among downtown business owners and city officials.
Panhandling is not illegal, unless people walk up to cars in the street and ask for money.
Hunt and others who live and work in the downtown have said most of the regular panhandlers are not homeless but are instead panhandling for alcohol.
The Downtown Safety Alliance, with the Business Improvement District, is working to increase awareness of panhandling and encouraging people to put spare change in the Coins for a Cause boxes downtown.
The money collected by Coins for a Cause is donated to organizations that provide direct services to homeless people and offer treatment resources.
Since its creation in 2012, the Great Falls program has raised more than $2,400, all of which has been donated to the Great Falls Rescue Mission, the YWCA, Opportunities Inc., Grace Home and the GFPD volunteer program.
The Downtown Safety Alliance, Business Improvement District and Downtown Development Partnership have all discussed plans to write letters to Sheriff Bob Edwards about their concerns regarding the impact of jail overcrowding on downtown.
Treatment and prevention
Substance abuse has been an issue in the community for years and making systematic, environmental changes will take years more, said Kristy Pontet-Stroop of the Alliance for Youth, which chairs the Substance Abuse Prevention Alliance.
“This is not an overnight fix,” she said.
The group has about 40 members, representing law enforcement, health care, the faith community, schools, businesses, students and parents.
She worked as the juvenile drug court coordinator for nine years and moved into her current role to focus on preventing what she saw in court.
The community has seen chronic generational poverty, substance abuse and crime, she said.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.
SAPA attempts to interrupt that cycle through education, public awareness and intervention and support work.
They find they have to reach younger and younger children.
A 2017 report from Attorney General Tim Fox’s office found that one in five high school students reported using marijuana, 8 percent reported using inhalants and 16 percent reported abuse of prescription drugs.
That’s concerning since marijuana can have a major impact on brain development in young people and increase their risk for developing a psychiatric condition later in life, according to Dr. Debbie Rose, an addiction specialist at Benefis Health System.
“Kids who are smoking weed every day and think it’s no big deal, it’s a really big deal,” Rose said.
Pontet-Stroop attributes much of the early substance use to technology and media and what they see in the community. Students self-report that their parents are their No. 1 influencer and perceive that their parents view alcohol and drug use favorably.
Many of her addiction patients have a history of abuse, including parental trauma such as divorce, neglect and abuse, she said.
“It’s crushing to hear,” she said.
Those problems contribute to the high number of children in foster care. Cascade County currently has about 563 children in foster care, according to the GFPD’s summer update on meth use. According to Marti Vining, regional administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services-Child and Family Services Division, that of the Cascade County children placed in care, 76 percent are due to cases involving drugs, mostly meth.
Roughly 48 to 50 percent of the general population is genetically predisposed to addiction, but Rose said that in the right situation that predisposition will never be tapped.
“Each reason for addiction is as different as the person who has it,” Rose said.
Judge Best said she shows brain slides in court and has read studies that indicate it can take two years for the brain to function normally after someone quits using meth. If they don’t have normal brain function, Best said, it’s difficult to expect someone with an addiction to make better choices and stay out of the legal system.
Rose said addiction is often a lifelong struggle and the chance of relapse and overdose are especially high when someone with an addiction first gets out of jail.
There are no drug treatment programs at the Cascade County jail for the county inmates, according to jail officials, other than detox for people coming in under the influence of drugs.
“It’s a very bad illness for many,” she said. “For some, the cravings never go away.”
The treatment courts are “a beautiful and enlightened thing,” Rose said.
Treatment and recovery takes time and is resource intensive, creating financial barriers. Rose said private treatment centers are costly but those that accept Medicaid or Medicare often have limited space and only last about a month.
Mental health issues are often associated with addiction, Rose said. Medical professionals can’t treat addiction without treating the underlying mental health issue, but it’s hard to evaluate mental health when people are in the throes of addiction.
In October, SAPA is launching an education program on marijuana use and children. They’re also hosting a Stop the Stigma addictions week Oct. 22-26.
They’re reaching parents in different ways, but it can be difficult, Pontet-Stroop said, since they’re busy, some have a fear of government and others have a none-of-your-business mentality.
Some are having kids at a young age and aren’t equipped to understand the dangers of substance abuse.
Preventing the substance abuse that can lead to crime in the community is “a shared responsibility,” Pontet-Stroop said. “We all need to contribute to make this better for our community. On the most basic level, community members can help combat substance abuse by really being that positive role model in the children’s lives around you.”
Want to get involved?
If you want to get involved with SAPA or donate to Alliance for Youth, which funds SAPA’s efforts, call Pontet-Stroop at 952-0018. Alliance for Youth is currently seeking people to fill four vacancies on its board and volunteers for upcoming events.
Citizens can volunteer with the Great Falls Police Department in a variety of ways to help spot crime, support administrative work and more to reduce strain on patrol officers and detectives. More information is available here.
The Downtown Safety Alliance is a group of downtown businesses and organizations that meet regularly to discuss safety challenges and solutions. Contact Carol Bronson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 761-5861.
Start or join a Neighborhood Watch program. Contract Patty Cadwell, neighborhood council coordinator at email@example.com or 455-8496.