Municipal Court judge candidate Brendan McQuillan realizes the words will be controversial as soon as they come out of his mouth. "Putting someone in jail is state-sponsored kidnapping," he says. The comment is a theoretical footnote, meant not as a wholesale rejection of prison systems but to emphasize how important it is that judges send defendants to jail only when necessary.
McQuillan says he's seen the system fail. Fresh out of the University of Montana School of Law in 2008, he took a job as a public defender in Billings, processing some 450 cases in 10 months. It didn't take long for the new attorney to become "really bothered" by what he encountered.
"I saw indigent people who were not committing violent crimes spending an inordinate amount of time in jail," he says. "I counseled clients who wanted to plead guilty—but I thought were very defendable—but it was their choice because they wanted to get out of jail."
As Missoula has embarked on its own effort to reduce the county's inmate population, similar criticism—that too many nonviolent defendants are ending up in jail—has been leveled at Missoula Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks. And while Jenks has insisted that her court is not the problem, McQuillan is making his pledge to work with city officials on jail diversion the centerpiece of his election campaign.
That campaign finally launched in mid-August, having been delayed by a series of trials in Lake County, where McQuillan has been a special prosecutor assigned to domestic violence and sex crimes since 2016. The most significant was a rape case involving Vaughn David James, who had avoided rape convictions twice previously. A June trial ended in another mistrial, but McQuillan successfully retried the case and obtained a conviction in July.
McQuillan says his experiences as a county prosecutor and public defender have given him an appreciation for both sides of the courtroom and a judicial mindset that favors rehabilitation over "the heavier stick of incarceration." He considers his goals to generally align with those underpinning Missoula County's jail diversion plan and statewide legislative efforts at criminal justice reform. Implementing them in Montana's largest courtroom, he says, will require a judge who is ready to partner with local officials.
A number of them have already endorsed him, including city councilwoman Emily Bentley (whose clashes with Jenks were recently reported by the Indy), deputy county attorney Jason Marks, Justice of the Peace Marie Andersen and county commissioner Cola Rowley. Still, McQuillan expects an uphill battle to unseat an incumbent who can point to her own list of improvements she's brought to the court. "But I think the approach I would bring to the bench is in line with the values of Missoula, and the Missoula that is my home," he says.