Helena Voters Approve Levy To Address Jail Overcrowding

Nov 8, 2017

Helena’s Curt Chisholm had a feeling voters on Tuesday would approve the Helena jail levy, but not in his wildest dreams did he see it passing by the full 10 point margin it did.

"I was totally surprised. That's a significant margin. I think maybe we got the message out and got people informed about what this is all about."

Chisholm chairs the Citizens Advisory Council of Lewis and Clark County, which advises county officials on criminal justice issues.

What it's all about, according to those who supported Helena’s 15-year, $4 million annual operations levy, is jail overcrowding. Simply put, the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center is bursting at the seams. Mostly, Chisholm says, "Because the old method was just 'jail or bail'. A lot of people were given a bond to which they must post in order to get out couldn't afford it. So, in fact, a high percentage of these people were living the life of a pauper's prison environment. This is going to be a major step in the right direction, as far as I'm concerned." 

Chisholm once directed the now-defunct Montana Department of Institutions, which dealt with correctional facilities.

Helena's jail levy is part and parcel of a jail expansion bond that passed last year. That bond expanded capacity at the local detention center by almost three times. But implementing that project was contingent on passage of this week's jail levy. It funds the 30 or so people who will staff the remodeled jail, as well as technology upgrades and several jail diversion and risk prevention programs.

Some local social justice advocates say more money should instead be poured into mental health treatment and community-based rehabilitation programs. They add there are already too many incarcerations.

"They have this Utopian view of the world, unfortunately," Chisholm says. "I agree with them. I agree with them completely, but there are some that are going to have to be detained awaiting trial. That's just the nature of the beast."

The local jail is currently designed to hold 54 inmates. It's now commonly holding about 80. The redesign will increase that capacity to about 160 prisoners.

To those who grumble about the levy jacking up their property taxes by over $42 annually on a home valued at $100,000, Chisholm says he feels your pain.

"I'm sensitive to that because I just got my property tax bill and it went up significantly."

But he quickly adds that these are costs that Helena residents are simply going to have to suck up.

"The county unfortunately let this problem drag on and on far too long. We simply have to address it. It would become much more expensive if we get a 'conditions of confinement' lawsuit and this gets in the hands of a federal judge who could take the county checkbook and just start writing checks to correct the problems in that jail."

Chisholm says he and his colleagues on the Citizens Advisory Council of Lewis and Clark County will continue to offer recommendations to local officials throughout the remodeling and expansion process. He also vows that every penny of this levy money will be spent appropriately and wisely.