It’s not quite a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it helps.
Since 2015, Yellowstone County has spent roughly $300,000 helping low-income defendants pay for their pretrial monitoring costs.
And those payments, combined with a tool the rest of the state will soon use, have helped save the county between $2.1 million and $2.5 million by trimming the jail roster.
The subsidy program helps felony defendants pay for GPS, drug and alcohol monitoring — court ordered requirements for many people released pending trial. While the subsidy program is fairly unusual for Montana, Gallatin County also subsidizes monitoring costs through its Pretrial Services department.
The program was created after judges, jail staff, county officials and others decided to take action on jail crowding. The subsidy is run in tandem with a pretrial risk assessment, a tool that tells judges which defendants are good candidates for release. The program began as a pilot project and has since been expanded and made permanent.
Defendants deemed low risk for failing to appear in court or re-offending are candidates for release. But for many, the cost of monitoring — which is required for all felony DUI, sexual or violent charges — is prohibitive.
“And in the criminal justice system, I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s an issue of indigency and poverty,” said Justice of the Peace David Carter, who helped start the program.
So the county pays up to $9 a day to subsidize the costs for 35 people a day. For comparison, direct costs for feeding and clothing a jail inmate are $27 to $31 per day, which does not include overhead costs. (That amounts to $97 per person, per day.)
The subsidy often leaves just $1 a day for defendants to pay, depending on which company and monitoring product are used. There’s a wait list for the subsidy program — anywhere from six to 10 names long.
To Lisa Ereth, who coordinates the program, the need for financial assistance is clear.
“That’s kind of the standard situation, is people are unemployed or disabled,” Ereth said. “If they didn’t have the subsidy, they wouldn’t get out.”
In January, all counties will take a step in this direction, if they haven’t already. A law passed this spring requires state courts to use a pretrial risk assessment on felony defendants in order to identify good candidates for release and divert people from overcrowded jails. Yellowstone County has been using its version of the tool, along with the subsidy, since 2015.