By Seaborn Larson
Cascade County Detention Center population was at 143 percent of capacity as of Wednesday afternoon, higher than average, said Commander Dan O’Fallon, but becoming uncomfortably normal.
“A couple years ago, we would go home at the end of the day at it was 400,” he said. “Now, oh my goodness, I’d love to be at 450.”
The jail, which also serves as a regional prison, was built to house 350, and on Wednesday the population sat at 501. Overcrowding of this proportion means inmates are sleeping on the floor and in recreation areas.
“We hate to have to close down our recreation yard area where they can go out and get some exercise and play basketball and blow off frustration,” O’Fallon said. “But if the population continues to grow, we’ll have no choice but to turn that into a housing unit.”
In the last week, the County Attorney’s Office has, at the request of the jail, shuffled about a dozen defendants to facilities in Fort Benton and Townsend to create some elbow room. Those transplants are people who have been convicted on a probation violation but are still awaiting trial. Like Linda Christianson, who is waiting to be tried on homicide charges for the killing of Steven Fletcher. Christianson was on probation at the time of the incident and has been already convicted for the probation violation. Same with Stanley Isaac Lebeau, who is accused of killing Tasha Roberts in the Airway Motel last May and was on parole at the time of his arrest.
Christianson’s trial is set for October; Lebeau’s has been scheduled for January. If they, or the others moved to other facilities, serve out their probation violation sentences before their trials, they’ll return to the Cascade County jail.
And moving those 12 people to Fort Benton and Townsend?
“That got us below 500 for a day,” O’Fallon said.
The overcrowding isn’t unique at the county level. The state prison’s capacity is 1,568; on Wednesday the population was 1,627. The women’s prison capacity is 194, with a current population of 217. A number of those at Cascade County Detention Center are simply waiting for a bed to open up at a state facility.
While criminal justice reform from the 2017 Legislature aimed to reduce overcrowding and recidivism by cutting jail time for misdemeanors and prison time for a number of felonies, the legislative changes are projected to avert prison population grown by 13 percent by the fiscal year 2017, according to a recent DOC report.
The report was prepared by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and part of a presentation to the Criminal Justice Oversight Council and estimates the legislative package will avert $69 million in costs, put 383 fewer people in prison and 2,639 fewer people on supervision by that 2023 goal.
The local jail overcrowding will likely be a hot topic for this year’s sheriff election in Cascade County. Republican Bob Rosipal, currently a lieutenant at the Sheriff’s Office, says he selected O’Fallon as his pick for undersheriff in part because of his current supervisory role at the jail.
Democrat Jesse Slaughter, a Great Falls police detective, said he sees the jail overcrowding as an issue that needs a multi-agency attack. That means working with judges and prosecutors on pre-trial services, like alcohol monitoring or jail diversion programs, and looking at the programs that haven’t been tried in Cascade County yet. Slaughter said he also wants to establish an inmate work program, where low-risk inmates are under supervision while they, for example, fill up sandbags ahead of a local flood or shovel sidewalks in the winter for the elderly.
“We’re going to have to have a good relationship with the county attorneys office and judges to have conversations about who should and shouldn’t be incarcerated,” Slaughter said.
The hard part, he said, is battling the sheriff’s goals: managing the jail population while arresting everyone who needs to be in jail.
“There’s no way to have your cake and eat it too,” he said.
O’Fallon rebutted the viability of Slaughter’s ideas for the jail. Working with different agencies, trying out different pre-trial services, establishing a work program–all of those things have been tried or are already being put to use, he said. The inmates he has don’t qualify for work programs, and jail staff works on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis with the county attorney’s office to bring the jail population down.
He said ultimately, changes to address overcrowding need to happen in the Legislature, specifically on fines and jail time for people who don’t need to be there.
“We are actively working every day to manage that,” he said.
O’Fallon noted how many people in the jail await trial on felony charges, 177, and calls that “astronomically high.” There are only 200 beds on the county side, meaning that leaves just 23 beds for people in jail on misdemeanor charges, although there are currently 31 of them. Like Slaughter, he said examining how misdemeanor offenders are held in jails could help address the problem.
“We also have 177 people that, yes, probably need to be here,” he said. “It takes a very, very long time to get from arrest date to sentencing.
“It’s something that’s definitely an issue,” he said. “Until the judicial system becomes quicker, we’re going to have to deal with this kind of population.”