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Criminal justice reforms gain momentum under umbrella of Missoula coalition

Missoula County and a long list of local partners will apply a $700,000 grant awarded by the MacArthur Foundation to continue reforms to the criminal justice system, including addiction services and a push to reduce the jail population over the next two years.

The funding places Missoula County among 13 jurisdictions selected nationally for the program – a selection based upon the quality and promise of work completed so far.

The Missoula City Council took the first step Wednesday in joining the effort by signing on to the county’s newly formed Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

“The end goal is to reduce the jail population by 18 to 22 percent over the next two years,” Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley told the Missoula Current. “That’s the goal of this money, to get us there.”

Efforts to reform the criminal justice system and address overcrowding at the Missoula County Detention Center came to a focus in 2014 when Rowley took office alongside Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott and Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst.

A year later, aided by other partners, the county was awarded a Pay for Success grant to explore the cost of addressing overcrowding at the jail. The county also joined the National Stepping Up initiative and began work on a Jail Diversion Master Plan.

Those efforts gained the attention of the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded the county $50,000 in innovation funding in 2017 for its Native Outreach Project. That included a deeper look at the disproportionate number of Native Americans held in the local jail.

“Native Americans represent about 3 percent of the general population, but 12 percent of the jail population,” Rowley said. “MacArthur was happy with our performance and success on that, and they invited us to apply for this ($700,000).”

The funding will enable the county to fill several positions, including a data analyst and a cultural liaison. The later will continue the Native Outreach Project and work to address “racial and ethic disparity” across the criminal justice system.

“A key tenet of the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge is addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” county grants administrator Erin Kautz said Wednesday. “This will be done by hiring a cultural liaison through the Urban Indian Health Center to work within the jail incorporating some cultural programs.”

While the effort is broad and evolving, it includes a number of partners collected under the banner of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. They include Justice Court, District Court, Justice of the Peace, city and county law enforcement, and the city of Missoula, among others.

“We’re really trying to pull everyone together in a united front, beyond what each of us can do alone,” Rowley said. “To take it the next level, we have to do more than what we can do in our own departments, or our own jurisdiction.”

County commissioners officially formed the coordinating council last week and on Wednesday, the City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee voted to join the effort by adopting a resolution of support.

“The city of Missoula and the county has been investing their time in criminal justice issues over the past couple of years at an increasing pace,” said council member Michelle Cares. “This has been a well thought out, long-term effort that’s coming to a point. A lot of the efforts of criminal justice reside with the county since they run the jail, but we (the city) still need to do our part.”

The key strategies written into the initiative include front-end jail diversion, such as a cite-and-release, and training for local law enforcement. It would also provide post-booking stabilization, and provide services for those in the criminal justice system with mental illness or substance abuse issues.

Kautz said it also includes diversion efforts at the prosecutor’s level, something County Attorney Kirsten Pabst has been working on for the past few years.

“This would hire a social worker to work in her office to do this very early diversion of people to try to get them into needed services instead of going into incarceration,” Kautz said. “It would be like first-time, low-risk offenders.”

Three years after its public launch, the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge has grown to include 52 jurisdictions looking to create a more equitable criminal justice system, including Missoula.

The MacArthur Foundation has cited early success, including Philadelphia, which has decreased its jail population by 36 percent, and Cook County, Illinois, which has cut its jail population by 26 percent.

“The overarching goals of our work are to reduce inappropriate incarceration, decrease criminal recidivism, and enhance public safety and community connection while maximizing the efficiency of taxpayer dollars,” said Rowley.

“The criminal justice system itself has multiple silos within it, and they’ve done all they can within their own section,” she added. “We really need to work across the jurisdictions at this point to get better.”