The Missoula County Commissioners took an important step forward at their Wednesday meeting towards approval of a sweeping jail diversion plan.

Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott has been working for over a year with State Senator Cynthia Wolken on a plan to divert a significant percentage of inmates at the Missoula County Jail with mental problems and drug issues away from the jail and into various appropriate treatment programs.

"The neat thing about this plan is that it's a collaborative effort between the city and the county," McDermott said. "Our community has had an overcrowding issue at our jail for about 10 years, and rather than making our jail larger or building an additional jail, we decided to take a look at the alternatives to incarceration specifically for non-violent, non-dangerous offenders, drug addicts, substance abusers or folks with mental illnesses that find themselves locked up in jail."

McDermott said there are hundreds of potential prisoners that need treatment, not incarceration.

"The most exciting thing is that there are a lot of people absent substance abuse or addiction would not find themselves in the criminal justice system," he said. "They want to get help and treatment, our community just doesn't have those options right now. The plan is about working together to give people options rather than jail that allows them to seek treatment."

McDermott said the Jail Diversion Program will not only benefit offenders, but provide relief for an overworked jail staff that are not trained to treat mental health and drug addiction issues.

"There's a population of about 60 percent in our county jail that are technically non-violent and non--dangerous with drug and mental issues or severe psychoses," he said. "We're not properly trained to be a mental health facility and it's a big challenge on our staff, and that's where a lot of liability has come before the county with attacks on our detention officers, suicides, and other issues that we had out there. They do an amazing job, but it's difficult and sometimes dangerous, and it's just not the right place for people with mental illnesses."

The County Commissioners drafted a resolution at Wednesday's meeting so that the jail diversion plan could be adopted at a later date.