Sheriff explains overflow roster in county jail

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Lake County Sheriff Don Bell (Ashley Fox/Lake County Leader)

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office last month began publicly posting a list of people who are wanted for jail, but not incarcerated at the facility that is operating at maximum capacity.

In a Facebook post on its page, the sheriff’s office explained that “the persons who had law enforcement contact this past week who, due to our inadequate, overfull jail facility, were not placed in jail.”

Those citizens have outstanding warrants, or were cited and released when an officer would have normally arrested them.

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell explained that the idea to publicly share the list weekly came from staff.

“It was really kind of a working combination from the undersheriff and other deputies,” he said.

Together, the office thought the effort of “Warrant Wednesday,” when the office would share outstanding warrants on its Facebook page, was “fruitless.”

The bottom line, Bell said, was that the jail — located beneath the courthouse in Polson — doesn’t have room in its 40-bed facility for the citizens who would turn themselves in as a result of Warrant Wednesday.

“At least here, we can give the public, week by week, information on what we’re up against and why,” Bell said.

At one time, Bell said there were 1,600 hundred warrants in Lake County. While the office has “whittled” at that figure, more have been added. In addition to outstanding warrants, Bell said there are about 800 citizens waiting to serve time.

“That’s why we went to the Sheriff Work Detail (program),” Bell said.

Rather than spend time in jail for non-violent offenses, citizens can sign up for the program and complete community services.

What next

According to Bell, sharing the list on social media is one way the department can inform residents about the county’s overcrowded jail.

He’d like to see the county commissioners approve an assessment to see how many beds the jail needs to function properly.

“This next step is just to say the number of beds we need,” he explained.

“Whatever the long-term” goal is projected, Bell said.

An assessment could cost as little as $20,000 up to $100,000, Bell said, and the process can take six months to complete.

Bell has been researching the potential for a new jail since he was first elected in 2014.

He noted that officials had previously received a quote of $40 million for a new jail. He said he realized that at that price, a jail wouldn’t be built because the county wouldn’t be able to fund it.

That’s when Bell came across an article that mentioned a Tennessee-based company that specializes in building jails. The company has said they could build a 307-bed jail for $20 million after meeting with Lake County officials in the past, according to Bell.

Realistically, a smaller jail than what was discussed is what is needed, Bell said, which could bring the price of construction down.

Bell said he understands that the commissioners don’t want to go straight to the residents for funding construction of a new jail, and that his department is working to find ways to offset the cost.

Another factor that needs to be considered in how big the jail needs to be, Bell said, is whether Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes continue with Public Law 280. The federal statute allows states to assume jurisdiction in criminal and civil matters on reservations.

“I understand that the commissioners are waiting to see what the tribe does; whether they pull out of Public Law 280,” Bell said.

Regardless of that decision, Bell said, he’ll continue his effort to have the jail assessment completed.

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