Crime task force continues learning about resources, challenges in city

The city’s crime task force met July 26 to discuss pretrial programs and the local crisis response network.

The task force is planning to start discussing recommendations during their Aug. 9 meeting.

Commissioner Rick Tryon asked the group to start thinking about the information they’d received so far and to start thinking about their recommendations.

He asked them to make their recommendations specific and limited to actions the city could take within its authority and jurisdiction.

Sandra Guynn, a neighborhood council chair and president of the local Crime Stoppers group, serves on the task force and asked if the city could pass ordinances regarding certain behaviors since ordinances are low cost.

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City Attorney Sara Sexe said perhaps but they’d need to be aware of existing laws and cognizant of the costs and resources needed for enforcement of any new ordinances.

The task force has not reviewed or been briefed on the downtown safety plan that has been circulating for several months that’s the work of the Downtown Safety Alliance.

The existing plan was developed in 2013 through the downtown master plan process and many of its tasks have been implemented through the Downtown Development Partnership, which is part of the alliance with other downtown agencies and the GFPD.

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During the July 28 DDP meeting, Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority said the task force is missing a big part of the discussion by not discussing the safety plan.

“This would have been one of the top presentations for the task force and commission to hear,” Doney said. “The perception of the city begins with the perception of safety in the downtown.”

The DDP adopted the downtown safety plan during their meeting and it will go to the commissioner for review.

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The DDP also decided to send a copy of the plan with a letter on how they use the plan and that they’re going to continue their work in the downtown.

“We have a tracked history of making tangible changes in the downtown,” Carol Bronson, a safety alliance member, said.

During the task force’s July 26 meeting, Kellie McBride of Lewis and Clark County Pretrial Services briefed the group on their program, which is about three years old and the newest county department.

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She said the the program grew out of an effort to address jail overcrowding and in 2012, the county established a criminal justice coordinating council that over the years looked at jail diversion and pretrial services.

In 2017, Lewis and Clark County voters approved a levy for their jail expansion and the jail diversion program as well as mental health and early childhood intervention among other services.

McBride said that the goal is to keep people out of jail while awaiting trial and to make sure they show up for court dates and aren’t rearrested on new charges in the meantime.

Cascade County was given access to the risk assessment tool, which the county has been using, and a case management software that Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said the county isn’t using.

The Lewis and Clark County pretrial program includes four officers who are all POST-certified and an assistant, for $388,151 in this year’s budget. She said it’s funded with a small grant from the state and the remained through the levy.

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Based on a point in time count, their program had about 99 females and 248 males, and about 248 felony cases and 100 misdemeanor cases, McBride said.

Of the five pilot counties, she said that 86 percent of participants made it to all of their court dates, McBride said.

Their program sends text reminders to defendants for court dates and “this is one of the things that work,” she said.

The risk assessment tool the state uses determines a defendant’s risk of not showing up for court or causing further community harm. The algorithm uses a number of factors to determine the risk level, which the state uses to determine the level of pretrial supervision or if the person should remain in jail until their court trial.

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McBride said the state is looking at changing the monitoring levels and that there’s been an overreliance on electronic monitoring in some cases.

But the Legislature also passed a law this year making it easier for judges to order GPS monitoring for those suspected of certain domestic violence and stalking charges.

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill that went into effect July 1 and allows for GPS ankle monitoring or both as a condition of pretrial release when the offense involved felony partner or family member assaults, strangulation of a partner or family member, felony stalking or felony violation of an order of protection.

According to Montana Department of Justice data from 2000 to 2018, 200 Montanans died at the hands of an intimate partner. And, in 2019 law enforcement responded to more than 4,000 cases of domestic violence across the state, meaning that an act of DV was reported every 2.5 hours on average, according to a release from SCRAM Systems, which supplies electronic monitoring systems.

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In the release, former District Court Judge Greg Pinski said, “domestic violence victims often face a lifetime of fear, anxiety, and trauma. As a judge, I relied on monitoring technologies to protect domestic violence victims and assure a defendant’s compliance with no contact orders, location restrictions, and alcohol prohibitions.”

During the July 26 task force meeting Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said that the pretrial program “comes at a pretty significant cost.”

Cascade County officials looked at options for creating a pretrial program to reduce jail overcrowding but as of yet, no program has materialized, and commissioners have said the funding isn’t available.

Cascade County officials exploring options for pre-trial supervision program

Slaughter asked if there are models in the state in which the sheriff’s office ran the pretrial program or a hybrid.

She said there were, but “you arrested that person, that’s your job, when they’re on pre-trial, our job is to treat them as innocent until get to trial.”

Slaughter said, “I don’t thin deputies would be appropriate for that assignment.”

He said that the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office is planning to start a work release program soon but he’s concerned about the costs of pretrial.

In Cascade County, all discussions in recent years were to have the county operate a pretrial program since the bulk of those in jail go through district court and cases are handled by the county attorney’s office. The Municipal Court only handles misdemeanor cases and those within the city limits and generally doesn’t have more than 25-30 people in the jail.

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During the task force meeting, Cayle Halberg, a local defense attorney and former public defender, asked what statutory authority judges have to assign people to pretrial and the consequences of not participating.

According to the Montana Judicial Branch’s website, “the pretrial program in the Office of the Court Administrator was mandated by the 2017 Montana Legislature and is codified in Title 3 of the Montana Code Annotated. A “validated pretrial risk assessment tool” is to be used by courts to “assign release conditions and determine placement options.” MCA § 3-1-708.  The new law is consistent with the national recognition that there should be reformation of current bail systems. When determining release or detention of a criminal defendant during an initial appearance, the law now states that courts “may use a validated pretrial risk assessment tool.”  MCA § 46-9-109.”

Besich said Alluvion is also in discussions with the Office of the State Public Defender to include them in the partnership.

During the July 26 meeting, the group also got updates from those working on a crisis response program and existing resources.

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Capt. John Schaffer of the Great Falls Police Department said that sending someone to jail or the emergency department at the hospital were not good options for someone in crisis.

He said that in January 2021, GFPD averaged 4.6 mental health calls daily and GFPD has responded to 666 calls of suicidal individuals so far this year.

In 2017, he said that the GFPD started conversations about a different response model for mental health calls and through partnership with the Center for Mental Health, a crisis response team was established.

Schaffer said that most folks are getting through their day pretty well and so they work to figure out what happened that day to send them into crisis resulting in cops being called and to figure out how to get them back to functioning in our society.

He said that the team had a slow start but from September 2017 to April 2021, 90 percent of people were diverted from jail and 60 percent were diverted from the hospital.

Alluvion Health is now taking the lead on a mobile response team, with community partners that include the city through GFPD and Great Falls Fire Rescue, as well as CCSO, Benefis Health System, Great Falls Clinic, Great Falls Emergency Services, Great Falls Public Schools, Indian Family Health Clinic and more.

Trista Besich, Alluvion’s director, said that there are currently 17 providers participating in the program in an effort to reduce the strain on emergency departments and the jail for a situation better handled with other services.

Alluvion is also the new medical services provider at the county jail and Besich said they’re hiring now for the jail diversion team and will also conduct mental health and substance abuse screenings at the jail.

She said the intent is to decrease the inappropriate use of emergency departments, 911 and law enforcement.

Tryon asked how they differentiate between someone with a mental health condition versus someone with a substance abuse issue since he said some have told him it’s inappropriate to treat a drug addict and let them out of jail.

Besich said that their data, though a small sample size since they just started the program, is that in about 78 percent of people they come in contact with mental health and substance abuse issues are cooccurring. Many providers and those in the criminal justice system have said over the years that substance abuse is often a result of mental health or a traumatic experience.

Great Falls Fire Chief Jeremy Jones said that in his 20 years of working on the street, there’s a lack of resources and their calls aren’t tracked for followup. If firefighters are called to someone in crisis, there’s no followup with that individual and no other agency is tracking those interactions to better provide services, see trends or prevent future problems.

In the partnership developing with Alluvion, he said there will be care coordination and tracking cases, as well as creating a resource call center.

“The more we can minimize the interaction with things we’re really not trained for, the better,” Jones said, “and the more we can hand them off to the appropriate provider or resource, the better. This is an effort to put resources together to create longterm solutions.”