A public meeting meant to gauge support for the proposed location for a Kalispell prerelease center drew mixed responses last week, with some surrounding business owners questioning if the site was already a done deal.
“It felt like the decision was made before we ever found out about it,” Vaughn Penrod, of Penco Power Products, said of the suggested location at the old Montana Department of Health and Human Services building at 2282 U.S. 93 South.
The 2007 Legislature approved funding for the creation of a prerelease center in northwestern Montana, which currently doesn’t have one. Prerelease centers help offenders as they transition from prison to communities by offering a higher level of supervision and various services.
The Kalispell City Council and Flathead County Commission jointly appointed a local 12-person working committee in early 2008 to investigate the project and determine local support. In December, Community, Counseling and Correctional Services Inc., a Butte-based nonprofit, was awarded the Montana Department of Corrections bid to operate the planned 40-bed facility.
CCCS chose the proposed site, with guidelines from the committee, including a minimum distance from schools and a preference for non-residential areas. According to state law, prerelease centers must have access to city sewer and water and be located within a reasonable distance to emergency services. They also must be close to job centers and public transportation.
A handful of audience members said that with no other options presented it seemed the south Kalispell spot was a “shoe-in.”
The committee’s chairperson Bonnie Olson, however, assured residents that while CCCS has already invested money into engineering and construction plans for the building, the process was not complete.
“This meeting is meant to hear what you think about the site,” she said. “All of your input tonight will be considered.”
Steve McArthur, director of community correctional programs for CCCS, said he was afraid nearby residents were taking a “NIMBY” – not in my backyard – attitude, and promised the transition center wouldn’t be an eyesore or business deterrent. “This facility, from our perspective, is perfect,” he added. “It fits the need.”
Prerelease centers are designed to ease inmates from life in a correctional facility to living independently in the community. Offenders, who stay at prerelease centers for an average of six months, must have a job and are restricted in their movements. They receive treatment, counseling, education, job training and instruction on life skills like budgeting.
Montana has six prerelease centers with locations in Helena, Billings, Butte, Great Falls, Missoula, and Bozeman. They house a total of about 800 male and female offenders.
Flathead County is the last urban center in the state without access to a prerelease center, but is the fourth largest contributor to corrections with more than 1,300 offenders in the system, according to the DOC. As a result, in the past seven years, nearly 900 offenders from Flathead County have spent time in other prerelease centers, with about half moving back to Flathead County.
The problem with sending local criminals to other Montana prerelease centers, Olson said, is that any support and community integration they achieve there, such as jobs, are largely lost when they return home to the Flathead.
“We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend that there aren’t people in our community who’ve been sentenced to prison and who won’t return here when they get out,” she said.
Committee members and CCCS representatives stressed that the center would not “import” criminals from outside the area, but rather serve those who are already returning to this community. A screening committee, including Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset and Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan, would decide who was eligible to enter the center.
Both Nasset and Meehan said they had doubts when they first heard of the center, but that after talking with their peers in other regions of the state, believed the prerelease facility would actually make the community safer.
The public will have another chance to comment on the prerelease center’s proposed location at a March 10 public hearing before the Kalispell Planning and Zoning Board. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall. The planning board will forward its recommendation to the city council, which will vote on the matter at a later date.
The working committee is also expected to commission an independent survey to gauge public opinion of landowners around the proposed site.
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