County public safety levy includes pre-trial funding
On the Nov. 8 ballot, voters will be asked to consider a 14 mill public safety that this year equates to $2.46 million.
Initially, the sheriff and county attorney offices had proposed a $3.52 million levy but have since revised the proposal and reduced it to $2.46 million annually.
That equates to about $18.90 for a house with a $100,000 taxable value and $37.80 on a house with a $200,000 taxable value, according to the county.
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The proposed public safety levy is 14 mills. The dollar amount of the levy would vary annually based on the value of the mill. The levy would remain 14 mills in perpetuity unless the county sent the question back to the ballot to change the amount, County Attorney Josh Racki said.
“We know it’s a burden on taxpayers,” he said, but both his office and the sheriff’s office are down about 20 percent in sworn personnel so they need more resources.
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As proposed, the public safety levy would fund pay increases for deputies and deputy county attorneys. It will also fund a pre-trial program and a school safety program.
Racki said that he’s been wanting to implement a pre-trial program since becoming county attorney in 2017, but the county hasn’t had the resources to do so.
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He said that if the levy is approved, the county would issue a request for bids for a third-party community partner to manage the pre-trial program.
Racki said he thinks it would be best to have a third party manage the program but that commissioners could opt to run the program out of their office. He said he believes it would be a conflict to run the program out of the county attorney or sheriff’s office.
One of the biggest components of the program, Racki said, would be court reminders.
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On any given day, he said there’s a 25 to 35 percent no show rate in the county.
If they don’t show up, they probably aren’t talking to their attorney and it slows the process down for everyone, and some commit more crimes if they’re released without monitoring, especially when drugs are involved, Racki said.
A number of people being held in the jail are habitual no shows for court, so reminders would help them, Racki said.
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If a person doesn’t appear for court, they can be charged for offense, then arrested and put back in jail, and their charges start to compound.
“If they were going to get ahead, they’re not going to that way,” Racki said.
He said that Lewis and Clark County has implemented court reminders and appearances increased.
The county would also be able to purchase the monitoring resources, such as drug patches, urine analysis, alcohol or GPS monitoring equipment, at government rates.
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A challenge in the current system is that defendants have to pay for the monitoring themselves. Some are released on their own recognizance from jail with conditions for monitoring but can’t afford it so sit in jail, Racki said.
GPS monitoring costs about $300 per month and vendors usually want a couple of months paid in advance, he said. Sometimes a judge will release a defendant without monitoring if they can’t afford it, Racki said.
“I believe if it’s free for one person it should be free for everybody,” he said.
The daily cost to house someone in jail is about $95 per person, a cost paid by taxpayers, according to officials.
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The pre-trial program would also allow officials to provide intervention and prevention, as well as treatment.
Racki said they could address addiction earlier and monitor defendants to ensure they’re going to appointments or following treatment plans as mandated by the court.
Often a judge includes treatment of some kind as a condition of jail release, but if there’s no monitoring, a person is less likely to comply, Racki said.
The risk of getting caught, increases compliance, he said, which they see in veterans court and adult drug treatment court.
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“I think it would work,” he said of their proposed pre-trial plan, and would help reduce the jail population.
The county is no longer using the state’s risk assessment tool since it’s time and labor intensive for staff who are already dealing with heavy caseloads and other tasks, Racki siad.
As of Oct. 11, there were 375 people in the jail, which he said was one of the lowest populations in months.
Of those, 207 were on pre-trial holds.
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Some of that is due to the state prison not accepting inmates who have been sentenced on state felonies if they have pending county cases.
The state prison is also down significantly on staff and so it’s hard to move inmates between the facilities, he said.
The levy would also include funding to increase salaries for deputy county attorneys.
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Racki said that the low pay is a major factor in their struggle to recruit, hire and retain deputy county attorneys.
In his office, deputies start at $65,000. In the city’s legal office, lawyers start at $75,000, he said.
The starting salary for a deputy county attorney in Lewis and Clark County is $76,000; in Gallatin County it’s $79,000, in Yellowstone County it’s $75,000 to $84,000 and the Montana Office of Public Defenders starts attorneys at $77,000 where they can be bumped to $90,000 after three years. Racki said it would take an attorney 13 years in the Cascade County Attorney’s Office to reach that level.
Madison County pays attorneys $85,000 and in Sidney, they pay $95,000, Racki said.
“We really need to get that salary up,” he said.
Attorneys can do pretty much anything so he’s competing with private practice, other municipalities, the state and regional offices, he said.
Over the last six months, his office received one application for a deputy county attorney, and that applicant took a higher paying job elsewhere, Racki said.