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Lake Co. using pilot program to boost public safety, ease jail overcrowding

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POLSON - Balancing jail space with public safety is the challenge facing Montana counties every day. Who should be locked up before their trials and who should’t be -- and is there even room for everyone?

But a new pilot program underway right now uses science and statistics to take the guess work out of public safety.

The Lake County jail is usually pushing capacity, which is not an uncommon problem at county jails across the state. But last winter, the Montana Legislature passed several criminal justice reform initiatives.

One of those reforms was to create a pilot project on pretrial release decision making which is a way to decide if someone who’s charged with a crime should be in jail until their trial.

"It helps us weigh the risk of a defendant re-offending while their case is pending or not showing up in court," Lake County Chief Criminal Deputy County Attorney James Lapotka said.

It’s important because it’s a scientifically valid and statistically significant tool to weigh the risk of a defendant out in the public.

"People in this box have a 90% chance of showing up in court and a 90% chance of being law abiding. And the people in this box has a 50/50 chance of both of those things," Lapotka explained.

The program is It’s based on a points system and includes factors such as: Is the charge a new one? Did the defendant show up for previous court appearances? Did they commit a new violent crime?

A defendant with a high score so would probably be incarcerated, but the program also sets up the low-risk defendants for successes as well.

These days we get text messages for hair appointments and dentists appointments and this system sends texts messages to remind defendants to remind them of their court dates. And that keeps things running smoothly in the criminal justice system so it won’t be bogged down in no-shows and warrants.

"With jail overcrowding, a lot of times people would get booked and released who did rather alarming things. I follow Facebook and the news and see what people think about what we're doing here," Lapotka told MTN News.

"It is kind of embarrassing when we have people who are engaged in drunken assaultive behavior and there's no room in the jail for them so we want to free up that ail space in the jail for the people who need it," Lapotka added.

The program is being tested in five Montana counties and includes money for GPS and alcohol monitoring equipment. Although it’s still in the test phase, the program could be a game changer to the battle to balance of public safety and jail space.

Lapotka says they have about 30 people in the program which runs until July 2019. Other counties involved in the program include Missoula, Lewis and Clark, Gallatin and Butte Silver Bow.

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