Missoula courts, law enforcement agree to ‘second chance’ program for skipping court

In an effort to address capacity issues at the Missoula County Detention Center, courts and Missoula’s legal authorities have agreed to give low-level offenders a “second chance” to appear in court without a trip to the jail for failing to appear.

Anna Conley, the senior civil deputy at the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, said the agreement stemmed from a discussion between several legal entities, including the jail and the Justice of the Peace.

“The discussion was primarily to make sure the jail population was a safe and controlled population, that there wasn’t a capacity issue, and trying to make sure people who might have warrants for failure to appear for non-violent misdemeanors aren’t taking up jail time,” Conley said.

Missoula County implemented a resolution addressing capacity issues at the jail during the deeper days of the pandemic. With society returning to normal, the resolution was expanded this month to address future population concerns at the detention center.

Conley said the Justice of the Peace and Missoula Municipal Court will direct law enforcement by specifying on warrants whether an individual stopped on an outstanding warrant for failing to appear should be taken to the jail or to the court to stand before the judge.

The agreement will also see the detention center book individuals who are sentenced to the facility on a warrant that specifies detention. But the jail may also declined intake based upon capacity concerns or public health emergencies.

“Our goal in many cases, and what we’ve talked with law enforcement agencies about, is the ability to not take anyone into any form of custody, but to give them a warning card with contact information about whatever court it was they should appear before,” said Justice Alex Beal. “The hope in most cases is that there won’t need to be an arrest and transport but rather this warning, and people will call us the next day and everything will be wonderful.”

Beal said some people charged with a low-level and non-violent offense can forget about a court appearance. Rather than filling the detention center with low-level offenders who don’t appear before the court, the system should first remind them to go to court before more drastic measures are taken.

Missoula District Court Judge Jason Marks said the new effort will solve what’s been a longstanding problem of getting someone to appear in court on a low-level offense.

“I know none of the judges want someone arrested on a ticket they got for a non-valid license because their license expired,” Marks said. “This will really help solve those problems without issues of people being booked into jail when they don’t really need to be there.”

The agreement approved by Missoula County this week is one of several steps being taken to address capacity issues at the jail and its inmate demographics.

The county this week also received a $700,000 grant to continue advancing its jail diversion initiatives, which were launched in 2018. The grant funds a number of positions, including a community re-entry coordinator and a Native American peer support specialist to work directly with indigenous defendants.

Rob Taylor of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department said under the new agreement, deputies will issue warning cards directing those with an “appearance warrant” to show up in court.

“It’s a track-able program so when law enforcement contacts someone with an appearance warrant, they give an official notice to appear on the warrant, a second chance before it becomes an arrestable warrant,” Taylor said. “It’s another chance and it gives us the opportunity to keep these non-violent, low-level misdemeanor offenders out of jail for relatively small criminal violations.”

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