Lake County Commission Votes to Stop Prosecuting Reservation Felonies

Commission says cost of dealing with crimes on Flathead Indian Reservation is too high, but local law enforcement worry cases could fall through the cracks

By Justin Franz
Sheriff's vehicle. Beacon file photo

Amid a shrinking tax base, the Lake County Commission wants the county to stop prosecuting felony crimes on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The three-person commission — which voted unanimously earlier this month to support a resolution asking the state to consider withdrawing from an agreement that gives counties jurisdiction over reservation felonies — said that prosecuting Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes members costs upward of $2 million annually. But local law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Don Bell, said if the county were to pass felonies on to the tribes and federal government, some crimes could fall through the cracks.

On most Montana reservations, tribal law enforcement handles misdemeanor crimes and federal authorities oversee felony crimes. Lake County has been an exception to that rule since the 1960s. But County Commissioner Gale Decker said it now costs too much for the county to handle such crimes, especially after tax payments from Kerr Dam dissolved when the hydro project was handed over to the tribes. Decker said if the state or federal government doesn’t find a way to help the county out financially, then it wants to hand off felony prosecution to the feds.

“We just can’t afford it anymore,” Decker said. “We believe that the system we have now is a good one and we’d like to keep it in place, but the question is, ‘How do we fund it?’”

Republican Sen. Greg Hertz from Polson plans on introducing legislation in Helena requiring the state to help Lake County cover the cost of dealing with reservation felonies, although he admits it will be “an uphill battle.”

Sheriff Bell said he understands the strain that prosecuting reservation felonies puts on the county’s budget, but he thinks the alternative is much worse. He said that he would rather have his own deputies who live in the community heading up criminal investigations as opposed to FBI agents from Missoula, Kalispell or Great Falls.

“My big worry is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s workload is so big that they’ll just let stuff slip through the cracks,” he said. “It really worries me that some major crimes would go uninvestigated.”

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