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State, county share burden in upgrading Lake County jail

| April 10, 2022 12:00 AM

A class-action lawsuit filed last week alleging dangerous and inhumane conditions at the Lake County jail has highlighted a troubling situation in Polson that should come as no surprise to county officials.

In fact, it was the county itself that recently brought attention to the jail’s deterioration while lobbying the state to help fund Lake County’s enforcement of Public Law 280.

The law allows states to assume criminal jurisdiction over Native American reservations, which is traditionally handled by federal authorities. Lake County has handled law enforcement responsibilities on the Flathead Reservation since the early 1960s. Today, the county estimates it spends about $4 million annually to foot the bill.

The county produced a video in February aimed at shining a light on how funding Public Law 280 is draining its ability to maintain services and upgrade facilities. In the video, county officials specifically point out the jail’s substandard condition.

Lake County Detention Center Supervising Officer John Todd showed a jail pod that was built to house a dozen inmates, but has held up to 16 people at one time. He talked about how the jail is just large enough to hold only the most violent of accused criminals, while others are released on bond.

“We’re putting 14 violent people … into one block,” Todd said in the video. “We’ve had numerous fights where inmates have gotten hurt and have to go to the hospital with facial fractures and broken jaws.”

A tour of the jail further shows graffiti on the walls and paint peeling away from the ceiling, and cell doors that don’t lock. Worse, inadequate ventilation has allowed mold build-up in the jail facility, while the duct system spews dust out of improperly sealed vents, Todd pointed out.

While no one expects a jail cell to mirror a four-star Hilton, the accused should be afforded a safe and humane facility while being processed through the judicial system.

Lake County is clearly falling short of this constitutional right, and it needs to be addressed promptly by both the state Legislature and county taxpayers.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: The funding gap created by Public Law 280 is an unfair burden on Lake County, and it’s past time the state upholds its obligation to county residents.

In turn, Lake County residents finally need to step up and approve a levy to fund an expansion of the county jail. If not, they should be prepared for an onslaught of costly court filings similar to the civil suit the county is left dealing with.

Voters rejected such a levy in 2020 for a proposed $15 million jail expansion. We’re certain those cost estimates have only skyrocketed over the last two years.

Continuing to turn a blind eye will only exacerbate an already troubling predicament.