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Jail diversion, criminal justice reform in Missoula County receives $700,000 grant

Efforts to reduce incarceration rates and address racial and ethnic disparities in Missoula’s jail population will receive another $700,000 boost over the next two years.

The Safety and Justice Challenge Grant marks the second time in three years the MacArthur Foundation has awarded the grant to Missoula County and its jail diversion initiatives, which were launched in 2018.

“Nationally, there’s a lot of attention of late around criminal justice reform,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “This is the second year we’ve received this grant and we’re slowly but steadily making headway in this realm.”

Among other things, the grant will help fund several positions within Missoula’s criminal justice system, including a licensed social worker and two staff members to provide pretrial defendants with support and referrals.

The detention facility will also gain a re-entry coordinator to provide support to individuals leaving the facility, helping ensure they have success once back in the community.

All told, the reforms look to reduce rates of failing to appear at court proceedings, reducing probation violations, and shortening the length of pretrial jail stays for defendants not yet convicted of a crime.

The plan aligns with the county’s Jail Diversion Master Plan, which also seeks reforms to the larger criminal justice system.

“The point of the Jail Diversion Master Plan was to make sure the only people in jail were people that were actually dangerous and needed to be separated from society,” Slotnick said. “The work being done by folks funded by this grant head all in the same direction. We’re meeting the goals. That was a plan and this is actually money to get the work done.”

The grant also funds a Native American peer support specialist at the state Office of Public Defender to support indigenous defendants.

According to the Montana Department of Corrections, Native Americans comprise around 17% of all state inmates, though they account for only 6.5% of all Montana residents. Along with new staff members, the county plans to gather additional data to identify any racial and ethnic disparities in the legal justice system.

Slotnick said the reforms go beyond Missoula’s criminal justice division.

“The County Attorney’s Office has made some great headway on this through their Calibrate program, which is pioneering to see prosecutorial jail diversion,” Slotnick said. “These efforts go hand in hand and are complimentary, and are emblematic in us working across departmental boundaries and elected official boundaries, all in the name of one goal, and that’s criminal justice reform.”