Impact of Crowded Jail Felt by Law Enforcement Across Valley

Police chiefs in Kalispell, Whitefish say overcrowded jail is making their jobs tougher and putting the public at risk

By Justin Franz
Flathead County jail. Beacon File Photo

Flathead County’s growing jail crowding problem is having ripple effects throughout the entire legal system in the valley, especially for area police departments.

Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset said the overloaded jail is leading to an increase in crime in the Flathead Valley.

“We have a catch and release program in Flathead County right now where we arrest people and then have to let them go,” he said. “(The overcrowded jail) is absolutely putting the community’s safety at risk.”

When the Flathead County Detention Center was built in 1985 it could hold 63 inmates, but today it frequently houses more than 100 people every night. Just last week it was burdened with its largest population ever: 124 inmates.

Last year, the county started looking at purchasing the old Walmart in Evergreen to turn that into a jail but the deal fell through when someone else made a better offer. That other offer has also fallen through, and County Administrator Mike Pence said the owners of the building know the county is still interested and the $2.8 million offer remains.

The county was also seeking a $50,000 planning grant to help study the construction of a new jail but Pence said that application failed. He noted that although the jail study project qualified for the grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development the fund was already depleted by the time they applied. He said the county plans on applying again later this year.

But until a new jail is built or the current one is expanded, local law enforcement will be dealing with the problems of a growing inmate population.

Nasset said in some instances his officers have to let people go with a citation because there’s no room at the jail. He said in one extreme instance, a suspect had warrants for his arrest from almost every agency in the valley – including the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, the Kalispell Police Department, Whitefish Police Department, Columbia Falls Police Department and Montana Highway Patrol – but they could not place him under arrest because there was no room at the jail and he wasn’t considered an immediate threat to the community. Nasset notes that when a suspect is deemed a threat they do everything in their power to get them behind bars.

Because his officers can’t arrest some people they often have to deal with the same suspects on multiple occasions, which means they spend more and more time filing reports back at the station. He said some criminals have gotten so bold they’ve even told officers to just give them a citation because they know there’s no room at the jail.

“It’s just demoralizing for my officers to deal with the same criminals time and time again,” Nasset said.

A few months back, Nasset and Sheriff Chuck Curry got together with county prosecutors and judges to clear some space in the jail by letting some less dangerous inmates be placed on house arrest. When they did, Nasset said his officers rounded up a handful of the town’s regular troublemakers and crime rates suddenly dropped in the area.

The jail is also impacting the local Montana Department of Corrections parole office. David Dowell, a probation and parole officer who helps supervise the Kalispell office, said his officers frequently have to find alternatives to jailing someone who violated their parole. In some cases they use drug patches, tracking devices or house arrest. In extreme cases they send people to the jail in Lincoln County.

“If someone really needs to go to jail we’ll find room for them somewhere,” he said.

Whitefish Chief Bill Dial notes that the jail crowding issue isn’t limited to the Flathead Valley and that many agencies across the country are facing the same problem.

Dial said the city of Whitefish does have some jail space at its Emergency Service Center and that on some occasions they use it to hold suspects for 24 or 48 hours when there isn’t room at the county jail. When that happens, however, someone has to watch the suspect and Dial said on more than one occasion he has been called in the middle of the night to do just that.

The Whitefish jail space does not meet certain standards for it to be a full-time holding facility (it lacks a gym space, a kitchen and other amenities) but Dial hopes to approach the city council this year about hiring additional personnel to serve as guards. But Dial notes that merely having a place to keep suspects for a day or two is not a permanent solution.

“We can’t kick the can down the road, we need to come up with a solution,” he said. “We’re going to see crime rates continue to rise in this valley because of this.”