Why Missoula Has “Frequent Fliers” Appearing in Court
If there is one topic that comes up more often than most when it comes to the criminal justice system, it is why the same names seem to be appearing in court accused of various crimes that are not being kept in jail.
We spoke to Missoula County Attorney's Office Chief Deputy County Attorney Matt Jennings when he did the weekly crime report on Friday about why certain individuals are arrested and released rather than being incarcerated.
“I wish it was more unusual than it is,” began Jennings. “We have a lot of people in this community that commit crimes again and again and again. In fact, what we see is that there are really several hundred people in this community that are responsible for a vast majority of the crime. Most people are good and they're going about their lives, being respectful of others, and not really breaking the law. However, we get the same people, and we call them frequent fliers or repeat offenders, and we do our best to make recommendations to the judges on what we think should be imposed as far as bail or conditions of release or whether they should be monitored. But ultimately, it's always up to the judges on whether they hold somebody in jail or being released.”
Jennings attempted to explain why these individuals come before Missoula judges more often than others.
“Some of these folks need to be in jail, and that's just the truth because our community needs to be safe,” he said. “That being said, there's a lot of competing interests, things that are being balanced. A lot of the people that are getting picked up for minor offenses again and again and again, are often struggling with homelessness or mental health, and those are things we can simultaneously sympathize with their struggles, but on the other hand, we do need to make sure the community is safe.”
Jennings proposed a possible solution to the problem of such repeat offenders, or ‘frequent fliers’.
“One of the things that we're really lacking in our criminal justice system is sufficient help for people that are struggling with mental illnesses,” he said. “Right now, it's basically jail or nothing because we often don't have many opportunities to send somebody to (The Montana) State Hospital (in Warm Springs) for more than a day or two, and so we end up with a hole in our criminal justice system where some of the people that need help staying law abiding citizens don't actually have services unless we put them in jail.”
Jennings also sees the situation through the eyes of the Justices of the Peace and District Court judges in dealing with such individuals.
“Judges have a difficult job because they're trying to balance what that person might need to someday be a productive member of society with a cost of holding somebody in jail, which really are about 100 day $100 or more per person per day, and that’s paid for by the taxpayer, and then also trying to protect the community. And so those are always the things that a judge and our office are trying to balance when we're looking at what needs to happen with a person, but it can be a difficult balance, and we could always use some more resources on mental health on chemical dependency or pretrial supervision. And then in the end, some people just need to be held accountable, and some people do need to be in jail, when necessary and appropriate. We do our best to make sure that the community is safe and that people are taken off the streets.”
Candidate for Justice of the Peace Bill Burt made the following statement in an interview.
‘What I see as a law enforcement community whether it's the Highway Patrol, the Sheriff’s Office, or the Police Department, they're doing a really good job and working really hard to keep the community safe, to separate the bad people from the good people and to try to keep people safe,” he said. “There's just this revolving door to jail. Don't get me wrong, I really do see the benefits and believe in some of the jail diversion programs and the different things that are going on, but it probably should be the exception and not the norm.’
Another Justice of the Peace candidate, Susan Campbell Reneau, made the following comment on Talk Back.
‘Campbell Reneau said a defendant’s prior criminal history will definitely play a part in how she will adjudicate a case.
‘I will look at each case very carefully and I will listen to every person who testifies, and certainly will listen to the lawyers and I will listen to the police officers and any experts that testify,” she said. “However, if this is a person that has come before the court repeatedly, I am definitely not going to show mercy.”
Campbell Reneau and Burt are running against incumbents Landee Holloway and Alex Beal respectively.
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