Committee Touts Center’s Safety, Economic Benefits

By Beacon Staff

At a public comment forum for a proposed prerelease center last week, members of a local working committee gauged community support for the project for the first time, receiving a largely positive response from about 30 people in attendance.

Prerelease centers are designed to ease inmates from life in a correctional facility to living independently in the community, said Kerry Pribnow, prerelease center contracts manager for the state’s Department of Corrections. The minimum-security centers closely monitor each offender’s movements while also offering services such as addiction treatment, education, counseling and job training and placement.

It’s a winning combination, Pribnow says, to help offenders make a successful transition and avoid repeat crimes.

“Ninety-two percent of offenders are going to get out; that’s the nature of our justice system and their sentences,” he said. “So what’s the smartest way to deal with that? These centers allow offenders getting out with nothing a chance to succeed and to avoid reverting to old behavior.”

A prerelease center in Kalispell would have beds for up to 40 adult men who have committed an array of crimes from assault with a weapon to forging checks. The centers generally hold prison inmates nearing the end of their sentences, offenders a judge determines don’t need to go to prison or offenders who violate a condition of their parole. Each center has a screening committee that reviews offender information and decides whether that person is appropriate for the community.

Montana has six pre-release centers with locations in Helena, Billings, Butte, Great Falls, Missoula, and Bozeman. They house a total of 802 male and female offenders. The Flathead Valley, Pribnow said, is the last urban center in the state without access to a prerelease center. As a result, about 85 offenders from this region were sent to other centers across the state last year.

“It defeats the mission of the center somewhat because we aren’t able to integrate someone back into the Kalispell community – help them find a job or housing – from Billings,” Pribnow said. “The best we can do then is give them treatment and help them save money and hope for the best when they go back home, because they do go back home.”

Members of the 12-person working committee, which was appointed jointly by the Kalispell City Council and Flathead County Commission in January, stressed that the center would not import criminals to the area, but rather serve the ones already here.

“I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions people have, is that this will import criminals to our community,” Steve Breck, committee chairman, said. “But, there are already plenty of people who could use this service here. This would be a 40-bed facility; we sent out two-and-a-half times that number to these centers last year.”

Flathead County has about 1,300 people in the state’s corrections system – jockeying for third most with Cascade County – and almost 900 offenders being supervised by only 13 parole officers. The Flathead County Detention Center was built with an intended capacity of 64 inmates; its current capacity is 86.

“If our nonviolent offenders could go to the prerelease, it would free up room in our detention center,” Sheriff Mike Meehan said. “Right now, there’s not a lot of options – they’re in jail or out.”

Meehan and Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset, both members of the committee, said they were originally apprehensive at the thought of a Kalispell prerelease center. But after contacting their counterparts in communities with existing centers their public safety concerns had been resolved.

Although the prerelease centers generally gain attention for escapees, most of the residents stay out of trouble, Pribnow said. Last year, 43 offenders escaped from the state’s centers; on average, 94 percent are captured, usually within a few days. “Walk aways are a reality, but considering we handle about 1,600 offenders each year, it’s a small percentage,” he said.

The committee put forth a multitude of other benefits from building a local center, including a workforce that is required to show up sober and on time for work and, as a result can pay restitution, child support, taxes, medical expenses and dollars toward their own treatment and incarceration.

Last week’s meeting was likely the first of several as the committee begins the lengthy process of gauging public support. In the next two weeks, the committee will begin surveying residents both inside Kalispell and those within a 10-mile radius of the city limits.

If the committee finds there’s sufficient public support for the project, a private nonprofit group would be contracted to build and operate the facility and the committee would repeat the public comment and surveying process to find an appropriate site for the center. Corrections officials have emphasized that, because of Kalispell and Flathead County zoning ordinances, the facility would not be placed in a residential area.

“We’re not here to shove this down anybody’s throats or to force this into your neighborhood,” Pribnow said. “We think this is something that would benefit the community greatly, but it’s something we want the people here to embrace and be a part of.”

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