After Carbon County voters rejected a $19 million levy to build a new jail in Joliet on Aug. 3, County Commissioners say the plan now is to maintain the status quo and go back to talk to the community about options later on.
“Right now we really don’t have a plan,” said County Commissioner Scott Miller. “The community told us don’t build a jail. Don’t do anything.”
Carbon County has been without its own facility since 2001, when the jail at the courthouse in Red Lodge closed. With changing times and resources spread thin, the county decided a jail was in order and put the option to fund building a new facility up for a vote earlier this month.
Without a jail of their own, county deputies drive inmates to Billings, Bozeman and other areas at costs of more than $500 a trip. It can also mean a five-hour round trip, or longer. With multiple trips being made a week the time adds up.
To house the inmates while they move through the criminal justice system, the county pays a daily rate to those jails — in some cases as much as $75 per day. Space can also be limited and some people are released or not arrested as a result, according to Miller.
Carbon County Sheriff Josh McQuillan told The Gazette earlier this year that many residents were unaware the county had no holding facility.
“In fact, we’ve had people that are surprised we don’t have a jail period, let alone a 72-hour holding facility,” McQuillan said.
Days where court hearings are scheduled can get busy. One day in the last week of April, McQuillan sent two deputies to Gallatin County to transport five inmates and one deputy to Yellowstone County to transport another inmate being held there. Carbon County has 11 deputies, an undersheriff and sheriff.
“We’re a soft target,” Miller said, drawing on his military experience to point out that when deputies leave the area, the county is less secure.
Compounding the issue of safety is that because space is limited some people who should be behind bars remain on the streets. Judges must take into consideration jail space and availability when remanding accused persons into the Sheriff’s custody, Miller said. Some people go free.
To remedy those problems, county commissioners put plans in motion to buy land near Joliet to build a new county lock up. They put up $350,000 to buy property and put the levy needed to build a new jail before voters.
For a $100,000 home in Carbon County, the jail would have cost the taxpayer $80.73 a year. For a $200,000 home, the cost would be $161.46.
But by a margin of nearly 1,000 votes, county residents turned down the offer for both the jail’s construction and operation. Out of just under 4,000 votes cast, 2,447 said no.
Voters also rejected the $1.83 million operating levy with a similar vote margin.
The commissioners are sympathetic to the reasons voters rejected it, Miller said. He pointed to uncertainty and division in the country and said he sympathizes with not wanting to pay more taxes.
“People just want to pay their bills,” he said. But the concerns surrounding the jail’s necessity still stand, and Miller added, if the community wants to hold people responsible for breaking the law, part of that is jailing them and paying the bill.
Going forward the plan is to “let the dust settle” said Miller, meet with stakeholders, discuss possible outcomes and have a conversation with the community. “Come talk to us, we want to hear from [the community].”
Miller thinks the best option remains some sort of jail in the county. Whether it is a smaller jail in Joliet or a new sheriff’s facility with a detention center attached somewhere in the county. He does not believe relying on other counties is what is best.
When plans began, the new jail was intended to serve as a regional detention center, with 100 beds. Under that proposal, Carbon County would accept inmates from neighboring jurisdictions and charge participating counties for use.
But in January County Commissioner Scott Blain said the plan was reworked when the other counties in on the conversation “essentially backed out.” Plans for the facility changed to an initial 53-bed jail with potential to increase capacity in the future.
While pitching it to voters, Carbon County highlighted other benefits. The jail would have produced 22 jobs, most of which would have had starting salaries of about $19 an hour.
As for the 14-acre property purchased near Joliet, Miller said if the county decides to move forward with a different plan or build a smaller facility it is possible to sell off the land or use it for something else.
The county had not planned to buy land until after voters approved bonding for the jail, but the COVID-19 pandemic upended the local real estate market and it made more sense to buy in January, Blain told the Gazette at the time.
In December 2019, Joliet residents had also expressed concerns about putting a jail in the town of 650 residents. Some said the jail’s location was uncomfortably close to the public school. Some wanted the county to move the jail further away from town.
Commissioners and the sheriff said they chose Joliet because it was closer to Yellowstone County, and the jail could draw on a larger population from which to hire.
Going forward, Miller said the commissioners and stakeholders want to hear from county residents and decide together what the best path forward is for everyone. He wished the divisiveness had not seeped into the issue, but he acknowledged the community had legitimate ideas and concerns. He hopes they can form an acceptable plan for everyone’s benefit.
“I want to take those good ideas, put them together, send them out and poll the community,” Miller said. “What does the community want us to do?”