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Missoula city court starts new program to reduce missed court dates

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A new program aimed at reducing missed court dates in Missoula’s Municipal Court is underway.

The Pretrial Assistance to Support Success program (also known as “PASS”) helps people appearing in municipal court on misdemeanor charges. Using best-practice tools, the city and county collaborated on the program with the goal of making it easier for people to get to scheduled court dates.

“I think it’s an amazing thing to recognize that the best thing you can do to get people to come to court is to remind them that they have court,” Missoula Municipal Judge Jacob Coolidge said. “It goes to show a lot of people aren’t willingly missing court. They’re either unable or accidentally miss court.”

Coolidge worked with Missoula’s other municipal judges, Jennifer Streano and Eli Parker, on developing PASS. They also had the help of Kim White, who oversees the Missoula Sheriff’s Community Support Reentry Program.

PASS operates on a three-tier system that dictates how people move through the program. When a judge sees someone on a warrant or during their initial appearance, they recommend a tier level, Coolidge explained.

“That tier level is how they’re taken into the program,” he said.

Several things are taken into consideration for deciding where someone lands in the tier system: Their criminal history, record of making court appearances and factors that impact barriers to court, like if a person is houseless.

Tier 1 sends text messages to people, a more accessible way to send out court reminders. Everyone gets texts regardless of tier, Coolidge said. Tier 2 is for people with housing instability or a recent "failure to appear" history. Tier 3 is for people facing more serious misdemeanor charges, and/or someone with a lengthy history of missing court dates.

“The vast majority of people involved in the criminal justice system have a lot of issues going on in their lives,” Coolidge said. Lack of transportation, unreliable phone access and unstable housing are all barriers that make getting to court harder.

If the program isn’t working for an individual, there’s an option to move the case to the county’s Community Supported Reentry Program.

PASS fits into the City-County Jail Diversion Master Plan implemented back in 2016. The plan targeted reducing Missoula’s jail population and costs that come with incarceration, a press release from Missoula County stated.

In Missoula, costs hover at about $120 a day for someone to stay at the detention center, the press release stated. In addition to jail costs, warrant expenses, arresting officer pay and court costs stack up, too.

Coolidge explained the city didn’t have to expand its budget for the program. What it costs per defendant ranges depending on their tier and the services required to support them through the legal process.

PASS will also help determine where staff resources should go within the court. Two people supervised by White are designated as support specialists for the program.

PASS was launched about a month ago, Coolidge said.

While the program is still in its infancy, it tracks data on the front-end of the program so that a year from now, it can be used for comprehensive analytics to determine the program’s efficacy.

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