Courtroom gets a new look with benches made by inmates
Stepping into the courtroom on the third floor of the Stillwater County courthouse, something is immediately different.
In place of the multi-colored plastic chairs that for years have been seating in the public’s portion of the courtroom, are beautiful wooden benches, crafted specifically for that space.
The eight benches arrived two weeks ago, with two more on the way.
Responsible for the upgrade is Stillwater County Clerk of District Court Sandy Fox. The need for new seating arose two years ago when felony trials drew large crowds that the chairs could not accommodate, said Fox.
And Fox knows a thing or two about the needs of the courtroom, having been a Stillwater County public servant for 30 years, working in the county attorney’s office, justice court and in her current position as the clerk of district court.
Along with Justice of the Peace Lee Cornell and District Court Judge Blair Jones, Fox also determined there was a safety factor to address with chairs that could be moved around, as well as an aesthetical issue.
After consulting with Stillwater County Treasurer Jerry Friend, who had just replaced some desks in his office, Fox turned to the Montana State Prison’s furniture business for the purchase.
After getting a quote estimate of approximately $900 per bench, Fox and Stillwater County Justice of the Peace Lee Cornell decided they would split the cost of the benches between their two respective offices and presented the proposal to the Stillwater County Commissioners.
Not only did the commissioners approve the purchase, the commission covered the cost out of the Capital Improvement fund. Stillwater County Finance Specialist Joe Morse explained that Capital Improvement funds “are to be used only for capital expenditures. That means buildings or furnishings in excess of $5,000.”
The money can’t be used for any other purpose and it is funded “by a transfer from the general fund of unexpended monies at the fiscal year end,” said Morse.
A HANDFUL OF CHANGES
The benches are just the latest in a series of projects spearheaded by the justice of the peace in an effort to improve security and as Cornell puts it, “bring the courtroom into the 21st century.”
Among those projects are electric outlets installed on the half-wall behind where attorneys sit when their case is called, a wireless Bluetooth television mounted to a wall to be used in VisionNet hearings, a wireless recording system and the construction of an enclosed hallway from the judges’ chambers and Fox’s offices that allows judges to enter the courtroom without having to walk through the lobby area.
Cornell said he took on the task of making such improvements with the input of 22nd Judicial District Court Judge Blair Jones. Cornell uses the courtroom at least 15 times every month for civil matters and misdemeanor criminal offenses. Jones uses the courtroom an average of twice a month for felony cases during what is called a Law and Motion session.
During those sessions, criminal cases, as well as Youth Court proceedings, divorce matters, family court and other civil cases are heard by Jones.
MONTANA CORRECTION ENTERPRISES: BUILDING FURNITURE,SKILLSThe Montana State Prison is primarily a place of punishment, consequences and accountability for approximately 1,500 inmates serving sentences at the 68-acre compound just west of Deer Lodge.
But there is more to the institution than that.
Recognizing that most inmates will return to civilian life and knowing that the best shot of keeping recidivism rates down is by trying to better the individual, a myriad of programs are offered, aimed at better equipping inmates to be successful once released.
One of those programs is a furniture making business. For more than 25 years, minimum-security inmates have learned the craft of making furniture that is sold to government entities as well as private business, including 360 Office Solutions in four cities, as well as businesses in Butte, Helena, Bozeman, Billings, Kalispell and Great Falls.
MCE’s mission statement is as follows:
“…provides meaningful education, work experience and transitional services to assist offenders reentering our communities become productive employees, good neighbors and taxpaying citizens, supporting victims of crime and creating safer communities.”
Operating with a general fund of $795,000, that amount covers the vocational program’s educational component and the canteen’s three civilian staff. The majority of the MCE training programs are self-supporting, generating sufficient revenue to cover 95 percent of all expenditures, according to the organization.
“Inmates working in these programs develop marketable job skills, a strong work ethic and self-esteem through a feeling of pride in their accomplishments, often for the first time in their lives. In addition, inmates earn a wage to pay their victim restitution and court-ordered fines, and to save money for their release,” MCE states on its website.
The MCE website also states the programs improve safety by keeping inmates active and engaged while incarcerated, while providing inmates who are released with “opportunities to learn life and job skills, and develop a work ethic that enables them to become productive employees, good neighbors and law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.”
The website states that several national studies indicate inmates involved in an correctional industry training programs are less likely to reoffend and between 20 to 40 percent more likely to stay out of prison.