HELENA – It’s been just over a year since Lewis and Clark County launched its Criminal Justice Services Department. It began with just one employee, but has grown significantly since then.
“Our department has six people, in a very small office,” said Kellie McBride, the department’s director.
In 2017, voters approved a 15-year levy to pay for operating an expanded county detention center. That levy also provided money for programs to reduce the number of people in jail. Criminal Justice Services oversees several of those efforts.
This week, leaders released a report to the community, highlighting the impacts they have seen over the first year.
“Seeing the success of the program and the successful impact on the community has been terrific,” McBride said.
The most prominent program so far has been pretrial services. Whenever someone is arrested in Lewis and Clark County, employees complete a “Public Safety Assessment.” The form uses information like the offense the defendant is charged with and their legal history to determine how likely they are to reoffend or miss their court appearances. Judges can then use the assessments to decide whether a defendant can be safely released before trial.
If a judge chooses to assign a defendant to pretrial services, one of the county’s two pretrial officers will meet with them regularly to make sure they are there for their court dates.
“That keeps our community safe,” McBride said. “We know where they’re at, and it helps alleviate that pressure on the jail.”
Pretrial officers can also help connect defendants with things like mental health services, employment assistance and housing. McBride said addressing those needs can help reduce the chance that someone will reoffend.
As of Friday, 280 people were assigned to the pretrial services program.
“That’s 280 people not in our already overcrowded jail, 280 people that we’re helping connect with job services if they don’t already have a job, helping them find housing if they don’t already have housing, helping them with their mental health and substance abuse issues,” said McBride.
Defendants usually spend three to nine months on the program while awaiting trial. The Criminal Justice Services Department’s report estimates keeping someone who would otherwise be in jail out through pretrial services can save Lewis and Clark County $120 a day. McBride said, so far, about 85 percent of the people they’ve worked with have made it to court and haven’t reoffended.
“That’s pretty huge,” she said.
McBride said, in one case this week, a judge suspended sentence for a defendant who had been found guilty, citing the work the man had done while on pretrial.
“The judges are seeing it as positive; we’re seeing it as positive,” she said.
Pretrial services currently categorizes its clients into three levels of supervision. Of the current clients, 38 are at the lowest level – meaning they check in initially and receive reminders of court appearances. 154 are required to check in with pretrial officers about once a month, and 88 have to check in at least twice a month.
The department is planning more efforts in the coming months. McBride said they want to put more emphasis on mental health assistance. She said about 70 percent of the people who are arrested have mental health challenges.
They are also partnering with the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area to find ways to work with parents in the justice system.
“We see families continually entering into the criminal justice system, and we want to stop that,” McBride said.
The department has also contracted with the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit, to assess the data systems across Lewis and Clark County’s justice system and make recommendations on how agencies can better share data.
“I want to be able to paint a picture for you, from the start to the end,” said McBride. “Right now the data is so sporadic and so different. Everybody has their own little data system.”
McBride said she’s looking forward to the next steps for her department.
“Things don’t happen overnight,” she said. The community should be so proud of what has been accomplished in these last 12 months. We have a lot further to go.”
Funding for the Criminal Justice Services Department comes partly from the voter-approved levy, and partly from grants from the state of Montana and the Montana Health Care Foundation. The MHCF grant will expire June 30. McBride said they are hopeful the Montana Legislature will extend the state grant during this year’s session.
You can find a link to the full report from the Criminal Justice Services Department on the county’s website.
-Reported by Jonathon Ambarian/MTN News