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Yellowstone County Courthouse

The Yellowstone County Courthouse

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito told county commissioners Thursday about a new pilot program that could ease jail crowding and increase the number of people who show for their initial court appearance.

Following passage in the Montana Legislature last year of the Justice Reinvestment Act, five counties, including Yellowstone, received grants from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to increase the amount of information judges and attorneys have about people charged with misdemeanors and felonies.

That information must be provided at least two hours before the accused person makes an initial court appearance.

Yellowstone County’s share of the grant, which runs throughout the 2018-19 fiscal year, is $275,000. Twito and others working on implementing the pilot program, including Justice of the Peace David Carter, hope to have it in place by July 1.

The program runs like this: A contact telephone number is collected from someone who is booked, fingerprinted and charged with a crime. The person is later notified, via phone call or text message, of an impending court date. In other states, that simple notification has boosted the number of people who show up for their initial court appearance by 25 to 50 percent, Twito said.

The information gathered during an intake will place the accused person on a grid, which Twito described as “an objective algorithm, a public safety assessment” that gives the judge information about which option the judge might select for the accused — free the person after the initial appearance; free the person with conditions, such as electronic monitoring; or keep the person in jail while providing a bail option.

One problem, he said, is that the new system doesn’t dovetail with the court system’s current software program and will require a separate input.

Other communities in the pilot program, which includes Missoula, Lake, Butte-Silver Bow and Lewis and Clark counties, can use some of their share of the grant on pre-trial monitoring, such as ankle monitors.

But, “our numbers are too high to do that,” Twito said. “Our primary focus will be to do that data entry, and that’s most of the budget. I don’t know what the 2019 Legislature will do (such as fund the pilot program statewide), and I don’t want to commit the county to do anything.”

Carter told commissioners that while there’s “no nirvana program, this pushes innovation in the court system and deals with jail overcrowding … This tells the courts they need to be unified. Local taxpayers will get the benefit of the pilot throughout its duration.

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"After it’s over, (commissioners) can make the decision you need to make. We want to track what’s going on at the pretrial level better," Carter said, "and this is designed to show that data.”

Once the data has been input, it’ll go to a Helena-based call center for calls. That includes Sunday evening staffing so that courts are equipped with up-to-date information during the Monday morning rush.

“This is not a substitute for the decision-making of judges,” Twito said. “You can set bail and conditions the way you see fit, your honor.”

“It is information, and it doesn’t bind the court to do anything,” said David Sibley, a public defender. “(Judges) will have a concrete place to start, but they aren’t bound by anything.”

During their Tuesday meeting, county commissioners are scheduled to consider approving a memorandum of understanding putting the pilot program in place in courts across Yellowstone County.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.