Cascade County officials exploring options for pre-trial supervision program

Some county officials are working to develop a pre-trial monitoring program with hopes of getting it into the next budget cycle.

Commissioner Jane Weber, County Attorney Josh Racki and Undersheriff Dave Phillips, among others, have been working on developing a program that would fall under the commission office and use the risk assessment tool program currently made available by the Montana Supreme Court under a legislative pilot program.

That pilot is set to expire in 2019 unless the Legislature extends the program, an action local elected officials have asked lawmakers to make.

Cascade County couldn’t afford the risk assessment tool that kicks out reports and puts those awaiting trials into a monitoring matrix to determine what combination of monitoring, if any, is needed.

“If they drop the pilot program, we’re done,” Racki said.

Assuming the pilot program is extended for another two years, the Cascade County preliminary plan is to hire at least one person and determine how many people can be supervised to test the local program.

Racki said that preliminarily, they’re guessing that one employee could supervise about 70 people.

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According to data gathered by the Pew Charitable Trusts, roughly one in 80 adult Montanans is under some kind of community supervision. One in 89 Montana adults are on probation and one in 759 are on parole, according to the same data.

For now, Racki said they’re planning to focus on felonies and anyone booked would have their information entered into the risk assessment tool, which would kick out a report for the county attorney’s office and put the person at a monitoring level within a matrix .

As they’ve been researching options to develop a Cascade County pre-trial program, Weber said they’ve talked with other Montana counties that have programs and gathered their job descriptions to help formulate the local position.

“We’re trying to define the parameters,” Weber said, then they’ll review the proposal with the district court judges. “We’ll come up with what we think we can sustain and then talk to the judges. Ultimately, I want it to be a partnership with the courthouse and the commissioners.”

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She said her fellow commissioners were interested in establishing a pre-trial program, which would fall under the commission office, but the challenge to get it in the budget will be considering, “how can we make it affordable and effective.”

Funds for the program are not included in the current county budget and the hope is to get it into the upcoming budget, but there’s no guarantee the county will have the money, Weber said. They’re trying to get ready to implement a program if the funding is available, she said.

Weber said that the pre-trial program could allow people to stay with their families and continue working while awaiting trail.

“It helps the community, but might not save the county money,” she said.

Some people who find themselves in the criminal justice system have mental health or substance abuse issues and the pre-trial program could potentially help flag those issues and get people into treatment, Weber said.

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There are going to be offenders who will be in the jail and won’t qualify for pre-trial monitoring.

Officials are still working out what they want the program to look like, but Weber said they know one thing.

“We don’t want to become an adult probation program,” she said.

Weber and Racki have been discussing ideas with Missoula County, which has operated a pre-trial supervision program through a local nonprofit since 1996 and launched a jail diversion program in 2015 and began a pre-trial diversion program this year as part of the state’s pilot program with funding through the Legislature.

They’ve also been researching programs in Gallatin, Yellowstone and Lewis and Clark counties and Weber has a pile of papers on her desk that include job descriptions and participant agreement forms and more from those counties.

“It’s good to be working with people who have had some system in place and they can tell you what’s worked for them and what hasn’t worked,” Weber said.

Lewis and Clark County has a pre-trial officer and they require program participants to sign an operations and expectations form, Weber said the county will likely adopt something similar.

During a meeting of city and county commissioners with local legislators on Dec. 12, Weber said the county supports the extension of the pilot program under the Montana Supreme Court. The county has not been able to join the pilot program, but the court has allowed Cascade County to use the risk assessment tool free of charge.

City Commissioner Mary Moe has been part of a group meeting with Judge Elizabeth Best looking at pre-trial ideas and said there had been concern over getting people to the sheriff’s office for the 24/7 program since they may not have transportation and officials deemed it unsafe for them to be walking up and down the interstate.

“We’re trying to get at things that don’t make sense,” Moe said.

She said they’ve been working on trying to deal with substance abuse at the earliest point and get people back to being productive versus stuck in a cycle of addiction and crime.

Weber told legislators that they were developing a pay schedule and trying to keep it reasonable for participants.

She said they’re wanting to stop the cyclical nature of criminality.

One legislator asked if that meant bail would be eliminated.

It would not, Racki told The Electric, but if the county is able to implement the pre-trial monitoring, bail would be used less frequently.

“Bail does not prevent future crimes,” Racki said.

The lowest level might not require any monitoring while the highest levels might require GPS or alcohol monitoring and more.

The categories can also assign mental health or substance abuse treatment. The county attorney’s office can still argue to keep a person in jail who might score low in the matrix based on their knowledge of the case and a judge has the ultimate authority on what supervision will be imposed.

Those the assessment tool places at Level 2 may not get bond but could get more monitoring like GPS or alcohol. Level 3 would include everything at the lower level, plus bond.

Some people would not be eligible for the pre-trial program based on the nature of the offense and some would still have high bonds, Racki said.

But for some, bail wouldn’t be imposed and those in court could use the funds in other ways, such as paying for a portion of the monitoring services, Racki said.

“We don’t want to price people out,” Racki said, so they’re determining costs of the program and appropriate charges to participants.

The county is also researching options and costs for purchasing SCRAM devices, which monitor alcohol and GPS.

Racki said they’re also looking at whether a violation of monitoring would land a person back in jail, but that would likely depend on the judge and the type of offenses.

Another option being considered is one proposed by the county attorney association that would allow counties to pay to send first-time low level drug offenders to Gateway for an evaluation, which would determine the treatment needed

The average time for a case to reach resolution is 277 days, Racki said.

That’s a significant amount of time for a person with substance abuse or mental health issues to go untreated while pending trial, Racki said, and they frequently see someone gets busted with a little bit of meth, get out of jail untreated and then rack up more offenses before the initial case is over.

The idea, he said, is that if someone has a meth problem and gets into treatment right away, the county attorney’s office can cut them some slack.

Racki and Weber both said they’re looking at ways to send court reminders either via text or some other method to help people make their court appearances. Those hearing dates change all the time and Racki said in mid-December that the had at least 400 active felony cases, so “exactly what we’ll be able to do with that, I don’t know.”