As city updates its codes, jail time being expunged as a penalty

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As Columbia Falls city staff updates its municipal code, one thing they’re taking out is the jail sentence penalty where possible.

The move is not a debate on the justice system, however. It’s a fiscal one.

City manager Susan Nicosia told council Monday night that the state public defenders office is seeking $7 million in fees from the cities in the state this year, written in a bill that just passed the state Senate. If it passes, that would amount to about $22,000 from city coffers.

The argument from the defenders office, Nicosia noted, is that the cities are writing laws that have an incarceration penalty attached to them. But since 2007 the city hasn’t written any laws that have a jail sentence outside of state law, she said.

In fact, of the 1,118 citations written so far this year, only 95 qualified for a public defender and of those, only nine went to a bench trial and just one went to a jury trial.

Even so, the city as it updates its municipal code is still trying to take out jail time from its sentencing guidelines, while also keeping a watchful eye for “unintended consequences” she told council.

Nicosia and city attorney Justin Breck also noted the defenders office seems well funded already — even at simple city trials, which are misdemeanor offenses, there will be two public defenders on a case. Meanwhile, the city prosecutor handles all 1,100-plus cases and also works at a Kalispell law firm to make a living.

In other news:

• The city wrote a letter of support for a federal grant administered by the county for a new radio repeater antennae at the city shop. The antennae, which is currently just on a wooden pole outside the shop has greatly improved police radio service, Police Chief Clint Peters said.

The grant, through the Department of Homeland Security, will put up a permanent 80-foot tower and a building to house its power supply. The county office of emergency services will maintain the structure.

• The city will soon advertise request for proposals for upgrades to River’s Edge Park. The city is looking to put in a flush toilet and bathroom facility, perhaps enhance parking and finish landscaping and access to the new fishing pond.

The plans right now are to put an accessible path around the pond. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is expected to stock the pond this spring, but it still needs significant landscaping as well.

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