Commission hears court update
POLSON – Polson city judge Dennis DeVries and assistant city attorney Josh Morigeau presented information on the state of the city’s court system at the regular commission meeting.
Interim city manager Wade Nash invited the justice system professionals to present at the meeting. He said the commission should be aware of court and law enforcement happenings. According to Nash, this was the first presentation of its kind since Nash started working for the city.
Morigeau told the commission about creative methods the city is using to encourage people to become better citizens rather than prosecuting them. According to Morigeau, one of these methods is helping people “get legal” rather than putting them in jail. He gave the example of someone driving without a license. The city will give that individual the chance to go and get a valid license rather than going to jail.
Both DeVries and Morigeau said the court system is working with an influx of drug-related cases.
Those who get drug-related misdemeanors are given the opportunity to go to a drug treatment program instead of jail that the offender must pay for. Morigeau said this practice has effectively helped some community members.
DeVries introduced another creative solution the court system uses. The county court system does not prosecute the first offense for possession of small amounts of marijuana or opiates. Polson court and police staff want to take action when community members are caught with these substances the first time. The solution that was devised is that on the first possession, most are given a ticket for possessing “intoxicating substances” rather than marijuana or opiates. This charge is not a felony, like possession of methamphetamine would be. “This gives the first-offense violator an opportunity to get some help and treatment without having a felony on their record,” Nash said. In addition to his duties as interim city manager, Nash is the chief of police in Polson. “Nobody’s perfect and everybody makes bad decisions, but if you’re 18 or 19 and you make a bad choice and you get caught, I personally don’t think you should get a felony.” Nash said the program has been effective.
DeVries said the city court has seen an increase in drug-related cases in recent years: in 2015, the court dealt with 30 cases; by 2018, the number was at 118. DeVries pointed out that the drug raids by Polson police have increased the number of people in the court system.
There were 223 traffic stops in the city in 2018. DeVries said the Polson police give about twice as many warnings as tickets during those stops.
Both Morigeau and DeVries pointed to overcrowding in jails as a challenge to the justice system. DeVries said 10 Lake County inmates were sent to jail in Kalispell right after the Fourth of July. Even after removing those people, the jail held 66. The jail is built to hold 39 people. DeVries said the result of overcrowding is that people who are put in jail for relatively less serious offenses are let out of jail soon after they’re brought in. “That’s not normal,” DeVries said. “That’s not what should happen.” DeVries added that the entire state of Montana is seeing overcrowding in its jails.