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Oct 8, 2018

10 Ways that Missoula County, Montana is Crushing Criminal Justice Reform

Kristen Pabst - Missoula County Attorney

Some jurisdictions around the nation are beginning to take steps to improve the criminal justice process. Missoula, Montana has become a leader in implementing cutting-edge new programs designed to serve victims, reduce recidivism, and protect the community. Missoula is way ahead of the criminal justice curve and here’s why it matters.

Mass incarceration isn’t working and it is very, very expensive. When communities modernize traditional approaches to corrections and engage in evidence-based practices–those approaches that are proven through research to be effective–the crime rate goes down. To accomplish that, two important shifts must occur. First, we must look at offenders through a risk-needs lens, rather than the traditional “punishment” lens, by individuating sentences to address each defendant’s unique needs and tailoring corrections to address each defendant’s current risk. Second, we must look at data to see what is working and change what is not working. Good ideas are only as good as the results they produce.

Best practice guides often refer to the Goldilocks principle, or the idea that the best way to reduce recidivism is to impose just the right amount and just the right type of oversight and supervision upon an offender. We know that too little supervision of a violent criminal often results in predictable re-incarceration. However, research also shows us that too much intervention with low-risk offenders similarly results in reoffending.

By focusing our limited resources on those who present the greatest risk to reoffend violently, and away from those who, according to research, do not need heavy oversight, we are improving outcomes for both groups. With this approach, we are ultimately saving precious criminal justice resources, reducing recidivism and paving the way for true rehabilitation. Here’s why this little county in Montana is leading the way:


The top 10 ways that Missoula is ahead of the curve on criminal justice reforms:


1. Bail Reform.

Proponents of bail reform recognize that allowing people to “bond out,” by putting up money, unfairly incarcerates the indigent and working-poor. Instead, modern practice is to favor release and impose conditions that will protect victims and the community. Missoula County has operated a robust pre-trial supervision program through non-profit Missoula Correctional Services since 1996, which allows many lower-risk offenders to remain in the community awaiting trial at a much lower cost to the county than housing the same offenders in jail.

Missoula County launched its formal jail diversion project in 2015 with a multi-disciplinary effort to reduce incarceration for non-violent defendants. The program studied years of data and explored ways to provide mental health and addiction services to offenders in lieu of, during and after incarceration.

Additionally, Missoula has been a successful implementation model for the brand new Judicial Pretrial Diversion Program. That program uses a vetted and proven detention risk assessment to release defendants who would otherwise remain in detention until trial, on strict conditions and tailored supervision designed to protect the community, increase court appearances and allow them to remain employed.


2. Working together.

It isn’t surprising that when people work together, we save money and provide better services to our community. Missoula is leading the way when it comes to cooperation amongst criminal justice partners. For example, our multi-disciplinary Just Response team, made up of law enforcement, social workers, medical providers, advocates and prosecutors meets regularly to identify and fill systemic gaps. Project Safe Neighborhoods is a collaborative team of local, state and federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors that meets every other week at the Missoula County Attorney’s Office to identify Missoula most dangerous offenders and coordinates efforts to bring those offenders to justice. Other local working teams include the Criminal Justice Coordination Committee, made up of local leaders, Organized Retail Crime Alliance, a partnership between local business and law enforcement; High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area [HIDTA] and our very active DUI Task Force.


3. Prosecution-Led Pretrial Diversion.

Pretrial diversion is a program that keeps first time, non-violent offenders off of the criminal justice track entirely and allows them the opportunity for success without ever having to go to court. I’ve been working with representatives from the Center for Court Innovation and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys in developing Montana’s first formal Prosecutor-led Pretrial Diversion program, Calibrate, which is scheduled to launch early next year.

The concept of “Focused Deterrence,” — or spending criminal justice dollars on the right people at the right time — requires a shift in organizational thinking. It is no longer enough to be tough on crime and use incarceration as the only mechanism to punish offenders and scare them out of criminal patterns of behavior. You don’t need to look at stats from the Montana Board of Crime Control to see that’s not working. We must be smart on crime and be brave enough to invest money in services for people who are most likely to respond to those services.

My diversion program, once rolled out, will represent that shift by setting up a diversion path—separate from the typical criminal justice system–designed to identify low-risk offenders and route them off of the criminal justice track very early in the process. It will offer a menu of individualized services formulated to enhance rehabilitation of the participants and guide them toward becoming productive members of the community—without the weight of a criminal conviction.


4. Trauma-informed investigation, prosecution & services.

The Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office have teamed together to run an integrated Special Victim’s Unit [SVU] that has Friendly room for Victims with Children been referred to by national media as the new gold standard in sexual assault prosecution programs. Pabst’s talented SVU litigation team has grown from a traditional single ‘sex crimes prosecutor,’ to a team of 8, including 4 prosecutors, a Victim Witness Coordinator, paralegal, investigator and supervisor. Prosecutors now receive specialized training and Pabst has implemented a formal internal mentoring program to pair up new prosecutors with seasoned courtroom veterans.

Both the Missoula Police and County Attorney’s Office have designed victim-friendly interview and trial prep rooms. My office also recently redesigned trial prep room for victims with children, with a glassed-off play area, so kids can remain close to their mothers but out of earshot of the traumatic accounts of violence.

5. Secondary Trauma Group

In collaboration with local trauma expert Andrew Laue, L.C.S.W., we created and implemented an innovative and groundbreaking organizational resiliency program for prosecutors and staff called Secondary Trauma Group [STG], to prevent and mitigate the negative effects associated with working with victims of violent crime. The group learns the fundamentals of working with victims who have experienced trauma, the devastating effects of long-term exposure to secondary trauma stress on prosecutors and—most importantly—a toolbox full of tools to process that cumulative trauma in productive ways. The program has been expanded to include law enforcement, emergency personnel and even jurors who sit on violent cases.

Our prosecution STG recently won two national awards from the National Association of Counties including Brilliant Ideas in Government and the National Achievement Award for Innovative Criminal Justice and Public Safety Program. The Prosecutor’s Center for Excellence, a national organization dedicated to promoting best-practices based out of New York, recently featured our STG in its Did You Know? Series, recommending it as a model for district attorneys’ offices across the country.


6. Criminal Mediation

Like our STG, my criminal mediation program is the first of its kind in Montana. Criminal trials are very, very costly and not always necessary. Alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, has been recognized by the American Bar Association for many years as a cost-effective way to obtain justice for civil litigants. We’ve taken this proven method and extended it to improve the criminal justice system. Criminal mediation involves the offender, the victim, and the attorneys sitting down together to come to a resolution incorporating elements of restorative justice and saving limited resources.


7. Treatment Courts

Specialized treatment courts have been proven to be more successful that traditional incarceration and probationary sentences because they work with an individual’s specific challenges and monitor offenders’ abstinence from drug use through frequent testing. Missoula’s criminal justice partnership features Co-Occurring Treatment Court (for dual diagnosis of mental health condition + addiction); DUI Court; Veterans Court; Family Court (for parents with children in the foster system); Youth Drug Court and will soon have an adult Drug Court.

Treatment courts significantly reduce drug use, long-term results and do so at substantial cost savings.


8. Conviction Integrity Initiative

Conviction Integrity Units are recently new prosecution programs that review claims of actual innocence to identify, prevent and remediate wrongful convictions. The Missoula County Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Initiative, acknowledges that the criminal justice system has made mistakes in the past and pledges to ensure reparations are made to those falsely imprisoned. Efforts to prevent wrongful convictions include working with the Montana Innocence Project, providing access to DNA testing of old items of evidence, and diligently investigating claims of actual innocence and responding appropriately.


9. Data, data, data! Studying it; using it; sharing it.

Since I took office January 1, 2015 I’ve prepared and published The Missoula County Attorney Annual Reports, highlighting local crime trends, explaining local statistics and outlining new programs and goals. At the end of each year, I gather reams of data, take a hard look at the numbers to identify gaps and then refocus resources to fill those gaps. In addition to publishing the in-depth annual reports, I offer a weekly summary on a radio program, detailing crime trends and answering questions. This accomplishes two things– case reports and offering the findings to the public serves two primary purposes: it helps us understand evolving trends and how best to respond organizationally and it provides a great opportunity to communicate with the public, our ‘client’ and share the important work we are doing.


10. Reentry

Missoula is on the cutting edge of re-entry efforts, offering many services to offenders upon release from prison. Partners for Reintegration [PFR], started about 5 years ago, strives to help integrate offenders for success, by enhancing their access to housing, jobs, treatment, social connections and relationships, and by working to change community practices, policies, misconceptions and stigma about “convicts.” Research proves that when such services are available, recidivism rates dramatically decline.
Additionally, the Department of Correction [DOC] created a position for a local reentry officer. Local churches banded together to form the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative [MIC], actively engaged in providing services. DOC, MIC and PFR were all instrumental in the last legislative session, supporting several criminal justice bills enhancing reentry efforts and overall criminal justice reform.



Much of our success is attributable to local leaders that recognize that mass incarceration hasn’t been working and are willing to modernize practices by engaging in innovative programs. This last session our local delegation including Kimberly Dudik, Diane Sands, Cynthia Wolken and Nate McConnell, passed sweeping criminal justice reforms through legislation, affecting the whole State of Montana. Recent changes include overhauling the process for revoking probation; rewriting Montana’s “two strikes” law; reducing penalties for many non-violent crimes; offering an expungement opportunity for those convicted of misdemeanors; creating a holistic defense public defender pilot project to address underlying causes of criminal behavior; and revamping the parole board to facilitate offenders’ release back into their respective communities.

Dudik recently said, “It is financially imperative that Montana moves toward a risk-needs criminal justice system and away from incarcerating people suffering addiction and mental illness.” Local officials agree. I wholeheartedly agree. It is time we say goodbye to the idea of using incarceration as punishment and refocus our criminal justice resources by looking at proven ways to help low-risk offenders get back on the right track, serve victims in a trauma-informed environment, and reduce the violent crime rate.

Kirsten H. Pabst is the Missoula County Attorney. Pabst has been working in criminal justice for the past 25 years.

Links for additional information:
Fair and Just Prosecution
Prosecution Center for Excellence
Association of Prosecuting Attorneys
National District Attorneys Association
National Association of Counties