Helena Montana Politics

Guest Post: Vote Yes on the Jail Levy

Not the Lewis and Clark County Jail. Photo by Don Pogreba

by Abigail St. Lawrence

Let me start by acknowledging that I am far from a pureblood liberal.  I get cranky about bureaucracy and can give you a list of governmental offices I think could be cut.  As a single person and homeowner, I can be stingy about my taxes because the burden of paying it falls all on me; no one else pitches in when the property tax bill comes due.  However, I also believe that government services are there to do what we as individuals cannot, and paying my taxes to provide for those services is the cost of living in a civilized society and enjoying all the benefits that society provides me.  Among those government services are public safety, law enforcement, and corrections.  Those services are falling short in Lewis and Clark County, which is why I support the jail levy.

Let me also say that I am by no means an unconditional cheerleader for law enforcement, and I believe our corrections system has some fundamental flaws.  I proudly and generously support the ACLU of Montana, which has identified in spades the shortfalls of the current Lewis and Clark County Detention Center.  I am a lobbyist for the Montana Association of Christians, which advocates for a humane corrections system and support for incarcerated people so they can return to their families and communities in a productive and safe manner.  I also lobby for the Montana Innocence Project and know through that work that law enforcement gets it wrong sometimes.

However, the fact that law enforcement and the corrections system are not perfect doesn’t change the need for updated technology in the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center, additional staff to keep both county employees and inmates safe, pretrial diversion to reduce pre-trial jail time for those who simply cannot make bail, and risk reduction to interrupt the cycle of incarceration.

The bottom line is that the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center doesn’t serve anyone—law enforcement, inmates, or the public.  Inmates are sleeping in hallways, which isn’t safe for them or for detention center staff.  The detention center is understaffed, making for hazardous working conditions for the staff and delayed response time for inmate needs.  Overcrowding leads to such “creative” solutions as housing inmates in the library and hallways, meaning that legal counsel and mental health providers don’t have secure and confidential locations to do their work.  The women’s pod is consistently filled beyond capacity, making the conditions perhaps most dangerous and inhumane for the female inmates.  The technology to operate things like security cameras and doors is broken and outdated, meaning inefficient and unsafe conditions.  None of this is workable or, in some cases, even legal.  And the jail levy includes plans to address all of it.

But don’t take my word for it.  Go see the conditions for yourself.  Call Sargent Allan Ireland at 447-8235 to arrange for a tour.  Read up on the county plans for the levy at http://www.lccountymt.gov/bocc/dcbi.html.  And check out what the ACLU of Montana has to say about what needs to happen in our jails at https://www.aclumontana.org/en/issues/jails-and-prisons.  Then, when your ballot arrives, vote YES for the jail levy and YES for justice.

Abigail St. Lawrence is an attorney in private practice and a lobbyist for social justice and health care organizations, ranchers, and builders in Montana—basically, someone everyone loves to hate.  Her fellow members of Citizens for Justice thought she would be the perfect punching bag to write a blog post in support of the jail levy.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • With all due respect, Abigail, I cannot agree with your position on the Lewis and Clark County jail levy.

    Montana suffers greatly from its failure to have a cogent, cohesive and effective corrections policy and the levy is another example of how that failure plays out at the local (property tax) level.

    I dutifully visited the two sites you listed in your essay and nowhere did I find that Lewis and Clark County is attempting to utilize any of the myriad of community corrections/jail diversion programs that other communities in the state are employing to reduce incarceration levels.

    I was a commissioner in Lewis and Clark County in 1985 when the new jail opened. I recall being told by someone at the time (and I regret I can’t remember who it was) that the adage “build it and they will come” was as applicable to jails as to anything. That turned out to be true then and it is true today.

    The mentally ill should not be placed in jails. Non-violent offenders should not be placed in jails. And increasing property taxes to increase beds is not going to solve the problem of a failed corrections policy. In fact, it only delays the time when the citizens demand of their elected officials a state corrections policy that involves the participation of all levels of government, mental health advocates, social service and addiction experts, civil rights advocates, law enforcement and the public.

  • First off, thanks for writing an informative article on the levy, as someone who rarely picks up the IR I get most of my news online and through the radio. This is the first in-depth discussion I’ve seen on the matter.

    I did however have a few questions about a mailer I received earlier this week from your group. The mailer states “Offenders who need to be in jail are NOT being arrested because there is no room. Our community safety will improve when we reserve our limited jail space for dangerous criminals AND divert those we can safely manage in the community.”

    First off is there any evidence of criminals not being arrested? For God’s sake WHY are these persons not being arrested? This is extraordinarily worrying that we have unarrested criminals in our midst. Can you or anyone from your group provide further details about this statement? It feels like unneeded fear mongering.

    Secondly “…divert those we can safely manage in the community.” would appear to refer to those on parole and I struggle to make any connection to this levy. As I understand it the levy funds the expansion of our county detention center and does little else, this statement appears to imply that it would expand country parole enforcement capabilities, is my understanding correct?

    I personally support the measure despite an overall poor oppinion of our law officers due to some personal circumstances which I hope do not interfere with a productive discussion on this matter. I know something must be done to provide for a more responsive law enforcement agency and I believe this is a step in the right direction. That said I have severe reservations about a few claims made by your group’s literature and I’d appreciate a response.


    • Hi, Bridger. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am not part of the advocacy group, but as a Commissioner, perhaps I can shed some light on issues that you’ve raised.

      When our jail is severely overcrowded (virtually daily) tickets are written instead of arrests made since there is no room for additional detainees. Only those who are violent or otherwise statutorially mandated to be incarcerated are. There is constant pressure to keep the numbers of incarcerated down.

      Your second question centers more on the nature of the offense and consistent use of a legitimate screening tool that takes into account both an alleged violator’s danger to the community as well as his probability of flight risk. We do not control parole policies or staffing, but the county detention facility does house those who are parole violators.

  • My good friend and predecessor, Linda Stoll, and I agree about many things, but her comments here miss the mark I think.

    The current levy DOES address mental illness, diversion programs for nonviolent offenders and personnel to make sure that offenders are moved through the criminal justice system as efficiently as legally possible. That’s what a big chunk of the levy will be spent on.

    Linda, we have stood shoulder to shoulder, lobbying, educating, virtually begging state government to live up to its responsibility in this matter, with not much to show for it.

    Local governments and our property tax payers are the mercy of the “big boys” at the state and federal level. We cannot dictate to them, but you are correct that we have to keep the pressure on.

    I am pretty sure that you would do anything in your power to seek justice for all of us here in Lewis and Clark County. You always have.

  • Last time this issue came around, I blogged about it (link below) and it is still true. I am frustrated beyond words with my fellow liberals and the attitude that somehow there is not enough being done to keep people out of jail. It is a total crisis there. Issues of over-incarceration can only be solved at the state and federal level; the county is in crisis and NEEDS this facility! The first time I toured the jail was in the mid-1990s when I was teaching a satellite class for the adult learning center. Back then, the library was a library, not the sleeping room for six people. When I first was in solo practice and visited the jail to visit clients 9 years ago, I was not tripping over bedding in the hall and visiting clients on a bench in a corridor. This levy has failed three times and the problem is not going away.


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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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