MISSOULA, Mont. — There are nearly 200 adults in the Missoula County Detention Center right now, but a Missoula judge says the pandemic has impacted her ability to put offenders behind bars.
“Things are really, really, really difficult right now for both the lower courts but specifically Municipal Court,” Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks said. “The county is refusing to hold our people.”
That’s because of a resolution passed by Missoula County commissioners last March. It says the jail will no longer take those charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, nor those arrested for failing to appear in court, and it’s all because of COVID-19.
Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said it helps with staffing and other resources because, he points out, there’s “no other jail or plan B” if there were to be an outbreak at the jail.
Since the resolution was enacted the Missoula Co. Detention Center has had up to 25 individuals get the virus.
Whereas in Cascade Co. and Yellowstone Co. Detention Centers they've had cases in or nearing the 100s.
Jenks tells us it’s gutted the ability to function as a court, and she's concerned it will stick around longer than expected.
“I think that back in March that made sense in an emergency situation, but we are in this for the long haul now, and its causing a lot of issues, and I think it’s putting the community at risk in a lot of ways,” said Jenks.
Slotnick says he doesn’t think the resolution is putting the community at risk.
Jenks says people are only showing up for their hearings 30% of the time, because they know no one will come get them if they don't.
She adds control now rests with the Sheriff’s Office, not the courts.
“It’s not the jail, it’s really us who have consent on who goes to the jail, and the Sheriff’s Office is sort of following instruction on this and have leeway there,” Slotnick said.
“As far as I know, there has not been a single incident of the judge speaking with someone at the detention center saying, ‘We really need this person to be in jail,’ and then that not happening,” he added.
“If there are some underlying reasons why that misdemeanor trespass individual needs to be incarcerated, we are absolutely willing to look at that on a case-by-case basis,” Missoula County Sheriff’s Captain Jeremiah Petersen said.
Since the resolution was enacted last March, Municipal Court holds have only taken up 4% of the jail.
The detention center says they've taken in 549 city arrests since March 2020, but Petersen tells us he can’t say whether those correlate to municipal court holds.
Municipal Court holds include anyone on their first DUI to those charged with criminal trespassing.
Jenks says the resolution is like a free pass on misdemeanors, and overall she's concerned for those offending and the community.
“It’s really frustrating when you know if you could have a penalty out there you could get somebody into treatment, but without that stick then you can’t, and that is very frustrating,” said Jenks.
Slotnick tells us he understands the judges’ frustration as their power’s been curtailed and that officials are in the process of revisiting the decision to limit inmates.
A new resolution will be discussed in a Missoula County Commission public meeting this week. It states the detention center would now take in those charged with resisting arrest or those charged for their second or third DUI.
It also states they’ll take in those who have been arrested based on a warrant in the amount of $2,000 or more issued by a court within Missoula County.
We'll let you know if commissioners approve the changes.