Lake County Turns to Community Service to Deal with Crowded Jail

People convicted of misdemeanors will now be able to work off their jail time

By Justin Franz
Lake County Sheriff Don Bell shows a holding cell in the jail in Polson on Feb. 22, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Chain gangs may be a thing of the past, but Lake County Sheriff Don Bell is hoping that similar work groups of inmates can alleviate the community’s crowded jail.

Starting last month, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office began letting people convicted of misdemeanor crimes work off their jail time in the community. In return for eight hours of manual labor, inmates can have two days taken off their sentence.

Bell said defendants sentenced to a few days of jail time, for infractions such as first-time DUIs or not having automotive insurance, are unable to serve time because of lack of space at the current jail. There are at least 800 people waiting to serve time in Lake County but are unable to because the Polson jail has only 46 beds, which are usually filled with inmates convicted of felony crimes.

Every weekend for the last month, three or four inmates have worked with sheriff’s deputies to pick up trash around town or take care of the courthouse lawn. Bell said it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

“They’re working outside and they’re helping the community,” Bell said. “I’d rather do that than sit in the jail for a weekend.”

In order to participate in the program, inmates must pay a $25 registration fee and $25 for every day they work. The fees help cover work supplies and lunches.

The sheriff said he’s also looking at turning a recreational room at the jail into a bunkroom where people can serve their sentences in 12-hour stints on weekend nights.

Lake County is not the only community in Northwest Montana dealing with an overburdened jail. Flathead County is expanding its current facility while also looking at building a new one at some point in the future.

Flathead County Administrator Mike Pence said a jail expansion into the old county attorney’s office in Kalispell that is set to open next month would add 40 new beds. Jail staff has also figured out a way to add 33 new beds in the old jail space, bringing the total number of new beds to 73. While the current county jail was built to hold about 60 inmates, it often houses more than 100 adult prisoners every night. Sheriff Chuck Curry said in April it hit a new record of 141 inmates in one night.

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