With an eye on the equitable administration of service, Missoula County plans to invite members of the criminal justice community to serve on a new steering committee intended to oversee a pretrial research project.

The project will explore possible updates to Missoula's pretrial system, and will include a consultant from the National Institute of Corrections.

“Because of the MacArthur Grant, we have access to a national panel of pretrial experts,” said Kristen Jordan, manager of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. “We're going to be able to choo2s0e from this network to get a consultant to come in and conduct this research at no cost to the county.”

A letter sent to prospective participants in the criminal just system details the county's objectives, such as ensuring greater access and opportunities for those receiving pretrial services, and making sure taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly.

Commissioner Josh Slotnick on Thursday said the project will include the entirety of the justice system, from persecutors and public defenders to advocates and law enforcement. They'll be asked to take hard look at the city's pretrial system.

“It's someone who's been arrested and accused of a crime, but now they have to wait to go to a trial,” Slotnick said. “What happens to them in that intervening space? Some make bail, some don't make bail, some get out and are supervised. That supervision can mean a whole lot of things. It can set them up for success or make their lives miserable and set them up for failure.”

The project will also review pretrial vendors. Missoula County has for decades contracted with Missoula Correctional Services, which Slotnick credited for doing good work.

But the system hasn't been reviewed in years, Slotnick said, adding that it's time to look at areas of possible improvement or changes to the system.

“That's the area where we need to do some reconsidering,” Slotnick said. “MCS has been doing a fantastic job, but I want to take a look and see if what we're doing is consistent with what experts locally and nationally say we should be doing, just because we haven't had a chance to consider it for a couple decades.”

Slotnick said county commissioners came to the realization earlier this year that the time had come to review the system. The majority of people in the county jail haven't been tried and are simply awaiting trial, he said.

Given the costs of running the jail and holding inmates, commissioners wanted to take a deeper look at the criminal justice system in general, and the pretrial system emerged as the top priority.

“This was nine months ago, pre-George Floyd and the moment of racial reckoning we're in right now,” Slotnick said. “We've been doing it the same way for a really long time. Given that we spend a lot of taxpayer money on it, I wanted to find out if things are going the way we like. But we're not experts on it. We'll do a study and make sure we get it right.”