While out of jail pending trial, the vast majority of people who were diverted from county detention facilities under a pilot program have made all their court appointments and remained law-abiding, according to preliminary statistics.
Five counties around the state — Lewis and Clark, Yellowstone, Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow and Lake — have tested the pretrial risk assessment program created in the 2017 state Legislature.
Ninety-seven percent of nonviolent, first-time offenders who went through an assessment and were released from jail while awaiting their trial made all their court appearances, according to court data from July 2018 to August of this year.
And 95% of those released remained law-abiding. Of those who did not, 5% had a misdemeanor charge and 2% had a felony charge. That adds up to more than 100% because some people may have overlapping misdemeanors and felonies.
"Generally what we're seeing is good news," said Beth McLaughlin, the state court administrator. "If they're monitored and they're receiving court reminders and they're doing check-in with pretrial service officers, they can be successful during that pretrial period."
Montana has passed several iterations of attempts to reform the state's criminal justice system in recent years, and data are starting to flow in showing how successful or not the programs have been. On Tuesday the state Criminal Justice Oversight Council, a group made up of lawmakers, legislators, law enforcement, lawyers, advocates and others, listened to those who administer various pieces of the reform efforts. They heard how projects are doing and begin to dig into the data showing whether efforts are paying off.
McLaughlin told the group that the diversions can't "fix" people or handle all issues they may be facing such as substance use disorder or mental health issues, but preliminary numbers show people can be successfully managed outside the county jail during while waiting for a trial.
The diversion program, from its staggered start in June 2018 to August of this year, has resulted in 6,171 public safety assessments for people in county jails. Nearly 3,700 of those cases closed in that period, which is the set McLaughlin used to review the program's performance to date. Of that cohort, 72% of the defendants who were assessed were deemed OK to release from jail before their trial.
McLaughlin did add a caveat to the 97% rate of people not missing court appointments, saying some judges will give a pass to people who don't show up once. She also emphasized the data were preliminary.
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The main goal of diversion is to reduce the population of overflowing county jails, a problem that has plagued facilities across the state. While people have been diverted, Butte District Court Judge Kurt Krueger, who chairs the council, said other people are filling whatever space facilities can create with diversion.
The Butte-Silver Bow jail's capacity is 96 beds, Krueger said, and on Tuesday there were 105 people in the facility. Of those, 69 were people on probation from the Department of Corrections and had committed felonies in the past, so were not screened by pretrial services, Krueger said.
"A lot of counties are feeling that you're changing the burden on counties. Our jails are filled with (Department of Corrections) commits," Krueger said. "… The pretrial services is working in terms of getting people out in the community, but there are a lot of DOC commits, so we as a group should be look at those types of these things."
Pretrial diversion services were paid for with one-time-only money in the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions. For continued funding, lawmakers will have to take some sort of action when they meet again in Helena in 2021.
The risk assessment tool the state uses to evaluate people is one that has been deployed around the country and was developed by the Arnold Foundation that examines, among other things, data-based approaches to the criminal justice system. That tool was selected because it does not require interviewing defendants. That is a time-consuming process, McLaughlin said, and people could end up providing information their attorney would not want them to.
The assessment looks at a person's criminal history, the charges against them and any history they have of failing to appear in court. One full-time and two part-time employees in McLaughlin's office review that information and provide reports to the courts.
Other counties are exploring the approach. McLaughlin said Flathead will start using a public safety assessment this week, and Cascade will use it for felony defendants in the coming months. Gallatin County has also requested a presentation to get more information.
A key element of the program that helps people succeed, McLaughlin said, is reminding people to come to court. Part of the technology package the state purchased includes court reminders through calls or text messages to notify people their court date is approaching.
"Do you remember to go to the dentist unless you get a text message? If your life is in chaos … it might be helpful to get a text message saying, 'Hey, you have court tomorrow,'" McLaughlin said.