Lewis and Clark County officials are addressing jail overcrowding not only by increasing the capacity of the detention center in Helena, but also byworking to keep out the people who don't need to be there.
The new Pretrial Services team is being led by the county's Restorative Justice Director Kellie McBride, with help from the Office of the Court Administrator. The goal of the new program is to help judges determine whether those charged with a crime should be released from jail as they are awaiting trial.
The county hired two new Pretrial Services officers, Jason Sexton and Jennifer Norris. Both come from law enforcement backgrounds, as Sexton worked at the Montana Department of Corrections as a probation and parole officer while Norris served on the Great Falls Police Department.
Their jobs are part wrangler, part cop and part parent as they work to help those in the program meet the conditions of their release. In a move borrowed from dentist offices everywhere, they will either get the phone numbers of offenders or give them disposable cellphones and call them the day before an appointment.
“The system we have had to date has not kept the community safe,” McBride said. “If Lester is an ax murderer or a rapist and has a $1 million bond, and he has bond, he’s out. If Bob the transient has a criminal mischief charge and a $5,000 bond and he can’t pay, he’ll be in jail for upwards of nine months.”
“The system has been inequitable based on money,” McBride added. “Those in poverty pay a huge penalty that doesn’t keep the community safe.”
Pretrial Services is in many ways a simple system, and McBride offered a fictional scenario to explain how it works.
“When Lester is arrested, we take Lester’s name, date of birth, social security number and send it to the Supreme Court of Court Administration, where they enter Lester’s information,” McBride said. “Has Lester been convicted? Did he show up for court?”
A set of numbers are assigned to Lester, from 1:1 to 6:6, with 1:1 being the lowest risk of offense and 6:6 being the highest. This number, called a public safety announcement, is provided to Judge Bob Wood in Helena Municipal Court or Judge Mike Swingley in Justice Court to be used as evidence in deciding to release, bond or hold the defendant for the public’s safety.
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“I only refer people with new charges who are not on probation, without prior felonies or violent misdemeanors,” Swingley said. “Low-risk people who will show up to court and obey pretrial conditions.”
“The judge has a lot of control,” Norris said.
Judges have a large amount of institutional knowledge, something that Swingley has brought into his decisions about who gets Pretrial Services.
“We had 13 people in on Monday,” he said. “Of those, three were eligible for Pretrial Services, but only two were allowed in because the other person had pending felony charges that I knew about.”
That combination of knowledge is something that is still being worked out on both sides, and what constitutes success is still up in the air.
Swingley said previous efforts with Pretrial Services haven’t worked.
“The new one is a completely different model,” Swingley said. “It’s only been in place for four weeks, but they’re dedicated people trying to help the court.”
Wood had similar opinions about the efficacy of the new program.
“It’s still in its infancy,” Wood said. “Success would be the release of prisoners and providing some help in making sure they’re responsive to the court.”