The Economics of Incarceration

By Beacon Staff

Bonds that fund concrete and steel bars that are the building blocks of a county jail are less appealing than, say, a nod for a new public school.

Thus, Flathead County officials have a tough sell. And they know it.

At a county commission meeting earlier this month Commissioner Gary Hall, speaking to an architect hired to put a price tag on a renovated and expanded Justice Center, said taxpayers have to be convinced “this is the only way to go.”

Commissioner Dale Lauman stressed, “People will buy it as long as we’re totally honest.”

They sounded like seasoned salesmen; and they should. Montana taxpayers are sticklers about bonds used for upgrading government infrastructure, especially when they involve jails, which an eventual proposed bond would expand along with crowded offices.

“Very few of us want to vote to raise our taxes,” Commissioner Joe Brenneman said in a later interview. “Even those of us in government have a pretty deep suspicion of government in general.”

In the state’s fastest-growing counties, quelling those suspicions can prove difficult. In Gallatin, government officials have been begging constituents to approve a new jail for the last decade to no avail. Gallatin’s jail houses about one-third the number of inmates as Flathead’s while the communities share, roughly, the same population – a little more than 80,000 people.

Gallatin’s cramped jail has sparked lawsuits; required DUI offenders to be put on a waiting list to serve time; and prompted the county to bribe its neighbors for help. Since its 35 or so jail beds are always full, sheriff’s deputies there drive accused criminals to Broadwater County, which is eager to fill its jail beds and coffers with Gallatin’s inmates and money. Gallatin pays between $30,000 and $50,000 a month for the extra space. In a story in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Broadwater County Undersheriff Ben Knaff joked, “Thanks for the customers. Thanks for the money.”

His neighbors to the southeast are not amused. And this year – for a third time –that county will ask voters for $40 million for a new 150-bed jail.

“I think the public is ready to get the problem solved,” Gallatin County Sheriff Jim Cashell said recently.

Even if Gallatin voters do pass the upcoming bond, a new jail is still three years out. Cashell said the county should have expanded it almost a decade ago. But there are those who disagree – mainly voters.

Meanwhile, proving that they have plenty of cash, Gallatin voters have forked over millions for a new library, renovated high school and acres of open space.

In Flathead, the situation is not as dire. The jail here, which holds about 90 people, has never turned away an accused drunken driver, domestic abuser or felon. But it is always at, or near, capacity, said Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan, who’s hoping for 100 more jail beds.

A bond, which is at least several months away, would also expand and upgrade offices at the Justice Center. Chief Deputy County Attorney Jonathan Smith said his office has run out of room. There’s no office space to put new prosecutors and paper records have to be stored south of town.

The first step toward a new bond is getting a blueprint for expansion from Kalispell-based Architects Design Group. Company employees will interview county officials at the Justice Center about their needs and go from there. More than 20 years ago, a bond to fund the current Justice Center failed.

“I want taxpayers to vote this in the first time,” Hall said. “It’s going to be a tough sell.”

In the meantime, county commissioners have been discussing their own office needs.

And voters recently passed several school levies, some by narrow margins.

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