The 20 Million Dollar Question

Montana has the highest rate of incarceration among the Rocky Mountain states

By Melissa Hartman

There has been much discussion recently about the surging jail and prison populations both across the nation and across the state of Montana.  Locally we are looking at a proposed Flathead County jail at a cost exceeding $20 million. Although growing population plays a part in this problem, according to the Associated Press, Montana has the highest rate of incarceration among the Rocky Mountain states.

While jails and prisons are a reality of modern life, I can’t help wondering how much time is being spent on looking at the front end of this problem versus the back end of this problem. Imagine if we had spent even half of that money on community services, prevention and rehabilitation. Would we still be in a position of needing to build a new jail?

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  What if some of that money had been spent on Child and Family Services to provide parenting support and education? What if some of that money had been spent on substance abuse treatment? What if some of that money had been spent on interventions for at-risk youth or children needing foster care?

Investing in children and families can make a positive difference. I know this first hand from having served on the board of Center for Restorative Youth Justice (CRYJ). This organization operates on a shoestring budget but has made an incredible difference in many young lives here in the Flathead. In their 15 years of operation, CRYJ has contributed to a reduction in the number of young folks going to detention centers by 28 percent. Youth who complete their program are three times less likely to commit further criminal acts.

CRYJ emphasizes accountability as a key component of the program and facilitates victim/offender conferences as a part of this process. Equally important is the emphasis on strengthening community engagement and social bonds for the youth involved. This occurs through mentoring, conflict resolution, support groups and community service. Currently, CRYJ is looking at ways to intervene with at-risk youth before potential crimes are committed. I hope folks reading this will understand the added value of making this a higher legislative priority.      

While I realize that jails are an unfortunate necessity to keep our communities safe and to maintain law and order, money spent on new jails is a disturbing reflection of wasted opportunities and wasted lives. As a candidate for Montana Senate representing Whitefish and West Valley, I pledge to wisely invest your tax dollars to strengthen families today and reduce future expenses.

As we move forward, let us increase our commitment to investment in our fellow citizens, particularly our young people. In the words of the great Frederick Douglas, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”       

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