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Missoula County gets $700,000 grant for criminal justice reform, jail diversion

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Jail cell with keys

Missoula County's progress in criminal justice reform and jail population reduction was rewarded Wednesday with another $700,000 to continue those efforts.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced this week Missoula County has received that funding from a $148 million package called the Safety and Justice Challenge.

The grant package was awarded to 13 jurisdictions from around the country seeking to address over-incarceration in the United States, which holds 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population, officials said at a roundtable announcement of the grant.

The funding will provide the county, which has partnered with the sheriff's office, city police, municipal court, public defenders office, county attorney's office, county courts, Missoula Urban Indian Health Center and others, to coordinate in gathering and analyzing data, access expert technical assistance and fund strategies to address the main drivers of incarceration.

Those include "unfair and ineffective" practices that take a particularly heavy toll on people of color, low-income communities, and people who suffer from mental health and addiction issues.

Commissioner Cola Rowley said she was especially pleased with the possibility of hiring an analyst to examine crime data, so agencies can allocate public safety resources more effectively. City Council member Gwen Jones said Missoula spends 29 percent of its budget on public safety, and that positive reform would "benefit all of the community."

Gone are the days of scaring people out of criminal behavior with incarceration, said county attorney Kirsten Pabst. The individualized services that come along with prosecution-led diversion programs can be key to keeping people off the criminal justice track so authorities can focus their resources on those who pose the greatest risk to the community. 

The funding will also help the push to safely reduce the average daily jail population by 18 percent to 22 percent, one of the county's criminal justice reform goals, and put those inmates on track with addiction, mental health and housing resources.

Agencies involved in the plan hope to install programs including:

  • Implementing front-end jail diversion with law enforcement
  • Supporting prosecutor-led diversion efforts
  • Increasing use of the Public Safety Assessment tool
  • Providing post-booking stabilization
  • Providing outreach and education about indigenous cultures and racial disparities
  • Enhance services for people with mental illness or substance abuse issues involved with the criminal justice system.

The grant could also fund recommendations from the county's jail diversion program, published in April 2016, such as adding more social workers to the jail. Already the jail has established a social worker who can provide 24-hour medical and mental health services for inmates there.

The jail is built to house around 400, Sheriff T.J. McDermott said. While the population once sat around 425, that number has fallen to a consistent daily average of about 370 since the jail diversion plan was established, McDermott said. 

Police Chief Mike Brady said this new funding would help officers on the street who are interacting more frequently with people who suffer mental health and addiction issues.

This is the second grant awarded to Missoula County from the MacArthur Foundation. Last year the county received $50,000 for its Native American outreach program, which sought to address the disproportionate number of Native Americans at the Missoula County Detention Facility. 

Ivan MacDonald of the Missoula Urban Health Center said he anticipates more good work toward rehabilitation and restorative justice measures out of Wednesday's grant award.

On Thursday, the Board of County Commissioners will vote on a resolution establishing the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to oversee much of the work funded by the grant. 

Rowley said the commission is currently working on creating a director position for the CJCC, and will look to hire someone to that position, she said. In the following months, the panel will put together a budget for the grant, have that budget reviewed and submit it to the foundation. Rowley said the grant should be put work by March. 

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