Lake County Commissioners jail mill levy request presented at Polson Chamber of Commerce meeting 

Char-Koosta News

POLSON — Last Wednesday the Lake County Board of Commissioners made a presentation at the Monthly meeting of the Polson Chamber of Commerce. The subject of the presentation was the Commissioners’ $50 million levy request for a new Lake County Jail. The levy request is for $2.5 million annually over 20 years funded by a 37.337 annual mill levy. That breaks down to a $50.40 annual tax increase on a home valued at $100,000 for a 20-year total of $1,008. It increases or decreases exponentially per home value.

Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron gave a power-point presentation about the mill levy request and the reason for the construction of a new county jail based on its age and increased incarceration due to increased drug and alcohol related felonies. Commissioners Gale Decker and Dave Stipe were also at the presentation as were several members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council that included Chairwoman Shelly Fyant.

Barron cited 2017 crime rate statistics that indicated that Lake County topped county drug-related offences in the state, followed by Silver Bow and Yellowstone counties; Lake County also topped the violent crime rates, followed by Lewis and Clark and Silver Bow counties; Lake County followed Silver Bow and Yellowstone counties in burglary-related crimes. Lake County was third in partner or family members assaults; and fifth out of eight counties with property-related crimes. 

All of that has resulted in the increase in incarceration in a jail not capable of handling the increase. The lack of adequate jail space and other amenities such as a recreation area resulted in an ACLU lawsuit in 1997. The incarceration increase has resulted in increased operation expenses including payroll for the 20-person staff.

“Today the jail doesn’t meet modern required jail standards,” Barron said of the present jail built in the 1970s, adding that renovation of the existing jail is not an option as it would be more expensive than building a new one because of its limited footprint and that its walls are part of the foundation of the courthouse thus hindering renovation requirements. He also cited the potentially dangerous interaction of inmates going to court on the top floor courtroom with the public and county staff as they use the same hallways on the third floor.

The current jail contains 42 beds, three visitation booths, one adult holding cell, four administrative segregation cells, and one juvenile cell that can also be used for adults in approximately 8,000 square feet of floor space.

Through the last nine years District Court filings have been approximately 1,200 on the low end and nearly 1,600 per year on the high end. 

The jail presently incarcerates the most violent and most dangerous of felony offenders and is at 124 percent of capacity. Lake County also houses inmates in other jails. As a result of the limited space many people sentenced to jail for less dangerous felonies and/or misdemeanors cannot be incarcerated. It costs around $114 a day to house a prisoner

The proposed Lake County Justice Center would have a capacity for approximately 100 inmates; a recreation room in compliance with jail standards; private room(s) available for attorney/inmate meetings, medical exam/evaluations, mental health, and chemical dependency evaluation and treatment; two 24-hour juvenile holding cells; enclosed sally port for safe intake and transfer of inmates; and, secured kitchen for meal preparation and food storage with capacity to make at least 300 meals per day. 

The presentation cited racial makeup of the Lake County population in its presentation which is 64 percent white and 24 percent American Indian and Alaska Native. The rest are 7 percent mixed race, 4 percent Latino or Hispanic and 1 percent Asian, Native Hawaiian and Afro-American. 

Barron said Public Law 280 always comes up in discussions about the new jail and law enforcement in Lake County. 

Public Law 83-280 or PL-280 was enacted in 1953 to take away, among other things, the federal governments’ authority to prosecute crimes on Indian reservations and give that authority to the states. As a result it authorized the states of Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin to prosecute most crimes committed on Indian reservations in those states. The law was mandatory in the six states. The law did not cover Montana Indian reservations. However, between 1953 and 1968 other states opted in including Florida, Idaho, Washington and Montana. Montana opted in 1963 but the state left the decision to the Tribal Nations to opt in. The Flathead Nation was the only one to do so, in 1964. Since then, in 1993, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were successful in partial retrocession of some state jurisdiction over crimes committed on the reservation granted to the state under PL-280.

Lake County mailed out the mill levy ballots last week and they are due by Tuesday, Jan. 28. Lake County voting age residents may also vote in person.

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