Stop-gap in place for jail overcrowding

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The Flathead County jail has room for a few dozen more “guests” since a temporary addition opened July 2 on the second floor of the Justice Center.

By converting space that once housed the County Attorney’s offices into dormitory-style rooms for 40 jail beds — and adding more bunk beds to the existing detention center — the county finally has a stop-gap measure in place to deal with the chronic overcrowding at the jail. For the first time in years the jail is able to accept misdemeanor offenders of all kinds, not just those involving violence or public endangerment.

Even though it cost $1.64 million to build and furnish the addition, it’s only a temporary fix. It may be a few years before the county comes up with a game plan of what kind of new jail to build and how much it will cost.

Here’s what we know so far. Flathead County has included $50 million for a new jail in the county’s five-year capital improvement plan. The cost would be spread out over three years and the project is contingent on voters supporting a $37 million bond.

To their credit, county officials are doing their homework to look at what similar counties have in place for adult detention. Members of a jail planning group toured Gallatin County’s 160-bed jail in Bozeman this week. Flathead County is similar in size and economy to Gallatin County, so it makes sense to get a close-up look at that facility, which was supported with a $32 million voter-approved bond.

Given the projected continuing growth of the Flathead Valley, it’s inevitable our county will need to build a new jail. Converting an existing facility or somehow adding on to the existing jail in the Justice Center just don’t seem like good options when one considers the return on investment.

Yes, $50 million is a boat-load of money, and it’s not going to get any cheaper. The county won a state planning grant last year to evaluate expansion options, and we encourage all of the county officials involved in the planning process to use every dollar of that grant wisely to determine a solution for adult detention that will serve the Flathead for the next 100 years and beyond.

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