HELENA – The Lewis and Clark County Detention Center takes up one floor of the Law Enforcement Center in downtown Helena. The jail facility was designed to hold fewer than 60 inmates. As of Wednesday afternoon, it held 76. 40 more have been sent to other counties because Lewis and Clark County doesn’t have any space for them. Earlier this year, those numbers were much higher.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton says overcrowding has been a problem for more than a decade. Now, he says it’s affecting how his deputies deal with some crimes.
“We are not taking people to jail that we’re charging with a misdemeanor; we’re citing and releasing,” said Dutton. “If they have a theft from a business, we’re citing and releasing. If they have a fight, we’re citing and releasing. The troubles are not going away.”
The problems go beyond leaving suspects on the streets. Dutton says the conditions inside the jail can be dangerous for inmates.
“You cram them all into a tiny space, it takes very little for provocation of a fight,” he said. “We have substantial fights.”
Dutton says corrections officers have welded more beds into the jail, but that leaves each inmate with less personal space than guidelines recommend. If something doesn’t change, he warns a lawsuit could be filed.
County leaders hope a proposal on this year’s ballot could finally help address the overcrowding issue. They’re asking voters to approve a plan to convert all three floors of the Law Enforcement Center into jail space – enough to house 160 inmates.
Voters will consider two connected measures: a $6.5 million bond for renovation costs and a $4 million annual operating levy for 15 years. Both need to pass, or the project won’t go forward. All together, the bond and levy would raise property taxes about $100 a year on a $200,000 home.
The renovation plan comes a year after more than 60 percent of voters rejected a $40 million bond to build an entirely new jail. That plan also included a permanent $5 million levy.
“We’ve heard your voice on the vote on the last issue, where you said it was too expensive,” said County Commissioner Mike Murray.
Leaders say they made the new proposal 70 percent cheaper, and they made the levy temporary. So far, Murray says most of the people he’s talked to have been supportive.
The lower cost may also have helped secure support from the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce. Last year, the chamber surveyed its member businesses and found they were split on whether to back the plan to build a new facility. This year, 68 percent of the businesses said they favored renovating the Law Enforcement Center.
Chamber President and CEO Cathy Burwell says public safety is an important factor in attracting people to the Helena area.
“If they’re going to move here, they want to know that we have a safe community to bring their families to and raise their children here,” she said.
The levy would fund more than just jail upgrades. It would also provide money for mental health services, case management and other programs designed to reduce the number of people ending up in jail.
“We seem to have a revolving door,” said Dutton. “We want to put a stop in that revolving door.”
If voters approve the renovations, the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office and the Helena Police Department will have to move out of the Law Enforcement Center. Both departments currently pay for their offices, so they will likely use that money to lease new space.
Dutton says his office has started considering possible locations, but they won’t be able to finalize any plans until the results of the bond and levy are in.
HPD plans to stay in the downtown area. Dutton says the sheriff’s office would prefer to share a location with them, but they will also consider other areas. Moving out of the center of town would allow deputies to travel to their calls without having to go through the city.
If the bond and levy pass, Murray says renovation work could start as early as December.
“We don’t have final architectural drawings, but we have plans on what it should look like,” he said. “Given our current needs, we need to start immediately.
Reporter: Jonathon Ambarian