Letter Of Advice For Great Falls Crime Task Force

Editors note: the following is a letter sent to City Commissioner Rick Tryon and forwarded to E-City Beat concerning the Great Falls Crime Task Force and which we are publishing with permission from Mr. Gunderson.

My name is Jim Gunderson. I am writing to you regarding the soon-to-be commissioned Crime Task Force.

While no longer residing in Great Falls I still have many friends there and keep up on the local news and events via social media. Given what I used to do for a living there, I’ve been following with great interest the challenges that Great Falls is facing when it comes to crime, drugs and addiction as well as what is being done to address these issues.

For background purposes: I lived in Great Falls from 1994 – 2002.

Most of that time I worked in the Mental Health field, most notably at the Regional Jail conducting psychological evaluations, group sessions, and individual crisis intervention.

I also served on a committee with the Chamber of Commerce and sat on the Board of Directors for the Business Improvement District.

I see several issues that the Task Force needs to address. These challenges are not unique to Great Falls, as they are present in the vast majority of cities across our great nation.

If the Task Force is willing to tackle these matters, Great Falls could not only significantly reduce their crime and drug issues but could also be a role model for other cities in Montana and cities throughout the USA.

Many of these issues are intertwined. I’ve listed these issues below. They are not in any particular order, as it will be up to the Task Force to triage and prioritize.

Issue One: “The Revolving Door”

This is an issue not only in Great Falls but in virtually every community. We have the ‘frequent flyers’ of the jail/prison system. The repeat offenders, who, for a variety of reasons, keep coming in and out of the system. The question becomes, “What is the department of ‘corrections’ doing to address this issue?”

When I worked at the Regional Jail, we used to joke that we should turn the “L” block to the “(family name)” block and the “G” Block to the “(family name)” block. I swear that is where they held their family reunions. This goes back to systemic failure on the part of the ‘system’ (Corrections and Education). More on these below.

Issue Two: “The Enabling Community”

There is a FINE line between helping someone with a given problem (like drugs/alcohol, even poverty) and enabling their behavior.

What Great Falls, (and most communities) have are various non- and for-profit entities that have ZERO financial incentives to help their clients become healthy, self-sufficient and get out of ‘the system’.

They foster dependence on their services to get either billable hours or secure funding. This funding is often on the backs of taxpayers.

This is a HUGE issue in the drug/alcohol treatment and poverty resistance industry. This concept also applies to the welfare system.

Issue Three: Law Enforcement

Let me be perfectly clear on this. I have the GREATEST RESPECT for our men and women in law enforcement. This item is not a direct indictment on those that serve, rather it is criticism of the system in which they serve.

In recent years law enforcement has been more about arrests and ticketing than it has been in community policing. While arrests and tickets give hard numbers to take to the City Council, County Commissioners and the State for sources of funding, this single method of policing does precious little in the overall decrease in crime. (Especially when coupled with Items Four, Five and Six below).

Defunding the police is also not the solution to this issue.

Item Four: “The Slap on the Wrist”

Out of a desire to not turn minor offenders into major criminals, many courts use things like ‘drug court’ or other minor penalties in an effort to curtail future criminal behavior. In certain cases, I agree, this works, but NOT as a general practice, especially with more serious crimes.

Rudy Giuliani was spot on when he went after crime in NYC: concerted effort to go after the ‘little’ crimes to curtail the major ones. (This is especially true with repeat offenders. It is only a matter of time before most of them escalate to more serious, and often violent, crimes.)

Item Five: “Consequences”

This dovetails with Item Four. Judges’ hands are usually tied to what consequences they can give out during sentencing – usually fines, community service or jail time.

They need to have the ability to employ more ’creative’ and behaviorally appropriate consequences.

For example, if someone gets convicted for vandalism they should have to clean/scrub by HAND their vandalism and repaint or refinish as appropriate AT THEIR EXPENSE.

This will take efforts by the city council, county commissioners, and state legislatures to make this happen. I can tell you that behaviorally, relative consequences, (sometimes called ‘natural consequences’), are far more effective at curtailing unwanted behavior than community service, fines and jail time.

Item Six: “The Lawyers”

District Attorneys – It seems that DA’s only want the cases they can easily win, or the big, sexy, publicly-known cases. These get easy convictions and bolster their numbers so they can climb the ladder. These cases give ‘good optics” but does next to nothing for the overall crime rate.

Defense Attorneys – I recently saw a billboard ad for an attorney that stated, “You may have committed that crime, but that doesn’t mean you’re guilty!” Yes, every defendant is entitled to competent, thorough representation.

However, Attorneys absolutely know when their client is guilty, but their “job” is to get them off on a technicality, procedural error, or cast reasonable doubt. This only contributes to the increasing crime rates, hubris of criminals, and exploding drug problems. Admittedly, this is a tough issue to address, but it needs to be looked as a part of the overall picture.

Item Seven: “Education”

When I worked in the prison system at both the Regional Jail in Great Falls and the South Dakota State Penitentiary, I saw two commonalities with the vast majority of inmates.

A. Low level of education (usually elementary or jr. high)

B. Lack of problem-solving skills.

As we all should know, one of the biggest factors in the success of an individual is to graduate high school. Many of the inmates I worked with were dropouts, some as early as third grade.

Our education system is fatally flawed. Our kids are no longer being taught HOW to think but rather are being told WHAT to think.

This must change and is a fundamental piece of the crime reduction puzzle.

Problem solving skills were also a major factor amongst inmates. Consider the following. Someone has $500.00 in the bank but has $1000.00 in bills and expenses. I think we can all agree that this is a problem.

For someone who have even basic-level problem solving abilities, they will do one or a combination of several things: get a loan, talk to their creditors to make other arrangements, get a second job, or sell something.

Someone who has poor problem-solving skills will go rob a liquor store to get the other $500.00 they need, creating a bigger problem. Sure, they have solved the first problem, but at what cost?

A serious look into what the Department of Corrections has in place for programming needs to be done as well. Most DoCs have some programming in place, but what is the recidivism rate? (refer to issue one). How successful are these programs? In my tenure working in the prison system, the Department of Corrections does little to ‘correct’ but rather to ‘house’ and has the guise of programming to keep up the illusion that they are “correcting”.

Item Eight: “Parents”

Frederick Douglass stated, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

This is 100% true. Everyone like the effects of discipline, but no one likes to discipline. It’s hard, but it is necessary to build people of strength, character and integrity. Parents that blame teachers, cops, judges, etc. for their kids’ problems need only to look in the mirror to identify the usual root of the problem.

I’m not advocating consequences that are out of line, like beating children for spilling juice on the rug. I am advocating parents setting up boundaries, implementing consequences and doing so consistently.

Item Nine: “The Offender/Addict”

The actual criminal and/or addict is also a piece of this puzzle, perhaps the most important piece. There is an old joke in the psych field.

“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

The same goes for the offenders/addicts. In many cases there is no reason or desire for them to change. (refer to item two)

There is no “silver bullet” to address the issues of crime, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse. This is because there is no single cause for these issues. These problems are the results of a number of factors and thus the solution requires a multi-faceted approach.

This is a herculean task, yet one worth tackling. It will mean bucking the status quo, and I believe it’s time to do just such a thing. It’s also time to check the egos and politics at the door and focus on making substantive changes.

Thank you for your time in reading this, and for your efforts in addressing crime in Great Falls.

Jim Gunderson