A jail diversion pilot program is scheduled to begin the first full week of July, and those involved in its creation have high hopes for success.
Yellowstone Justice Court Judge David Carter said the program isn't the "silver bullet" for the jail overcrowding problem, but it's a step in the right direction. As a justice of the peace, Carter conducts initial court appearances and sets bond for defendants from the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.
It's his job to decide whether people accused of a crime should remain in jail until their next court appearance in Yellowstone County District Court or whether they can be released.
Lisa Ereth, the county's new trial assessment evaluator, will hopefully be able to answer that question for the judges in Justice Court and District Court.
It's her job to determine whether a person is a risk to reoffend while awaiting trial, a flight risk or a general danger to society out of custody and recommend the defendant's risk level to the court.
It's a critical question as the jail grows more and more crowded.
Jail Commander Capt. Sam Bofto said this new program should help relieve some of overcrowding issues. Ereth will not only check on new inmates as they are booked into the jail, but if she has time, she'll go back and examine cases with bonds up to $2,500 to see whether there are inmates who have been seen in justice court whom she could recommend be released.
Bofto wants focus on the women's wing of the prison. Commissioner Bill Kennedy said he and his fellow commissioners want the women to be the priority, too.
Kennedy said the commissioners will reassess how well the program is working in six months. During that time, he said, he hopes to see a reduction in the female population, which last week was at 88 inmates in the only female wing of the jail.
The tentative first day for Ereth is July 8. She has a master's degree in forensic science with a focus in crime scene investigation and was previously employed with the Tacoma Police Department in Washington.
Carter alerted the commissioners last week that he hired Ereth, who was previously working as a criminal investigation tech. Carter said she has experience interviewing prisoners for offender supervision.
The Yellowstone County Commissioners allocated $98,056 from the county's general fund for the assessment trial program. Ereth's salary, equipment and training totaled $48,781 and the remaining $49,275 will fund pretrial diversion programs for 20 inmates who can't afford either the GPS or alcohol or drug monitoring.
The funding will allow the Justice Court judges to spend $9 a day on pretrial diversion programs per inmate, about the average cost of the monitoring programs per day.
The diversion programs vary between several organizations. The main three are the Yellowstone County Detention Facility and the prerelease centers Alternatives and Friedel, LLC.
The detention facility provides a 24/7 DUI monitoring program. It costs participants $2 per test; those being monitored check in at the detention facility twice a day during a two-hour window from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Alternatives and Friedel provide those being monitored with portable breathalyzers with anti-tampering features. The programs vary through the two organizations, with Alternatives requiring random breath check-ins throughout the day, meaning the equipment turns on and alerts the carrier they must blow, or Friedel's system, which is similar to the jails in that it requires you to blow within two two-hour windows, according to information provided by Amanda Green, a beta house supervisor at Alternatives and Rich Friedel, a co-founder of Friedel LLC.
Friedel and Alternatives both also provide drug patches and live GPS monitoring, as well as additional spot testing techniques. Alternatives using urine analysis and GPS bracelets. Friedel uses a portable drug tester.
Friedel is a for-profit organization and their costs vary from Alternatives, which receives funding from the county. This fiscal year, they received a little over $100,000. The rest of their money to operate comes from the payments from the people in the pretrial program.
Each individual monitoring device shouldn't run over $11 a day for any person, on any of the programs through any of the different providers. That's in comparison to a little more than $35 a day to house an inmate at the detention facility, according to an estimate by Carter.
County Attorney Scott Twito said he worries about the county's liability. Ereth is a contract employee, not a county employee and there is a question of accountability if something goes wrong through the program. The assessment evaluator is contracted temporary help, and not a county employee.
Twito said his other worries come from the problems he sees facing comparable populations in Montana with risk assessors.
"Missoula, Bozeman, they have risk assessors, and their bonds, especially if you look at felony DUIs, are higher," Twito said. "Could be we might have more people in jail because of conditions set by this assessor."
Twito said his concerns come from the worry of throwing any wrench into the criminal justice system, but that an objective view of bond standards could be very helpful, as opposed to the adversarial environment when the bond is debated in justice court by the defense and prosecuting attorneys.