With $1 million grant, Ada County will aid Idahoans who shouldn’t be stuck in jail

Ada County will receive $1 million to be a laboratory for criminal justice reforms — tackling problems like those Magistrate Judge James Cawthon sees from his seat at the front of the courtroom.

“I have individuals coming before me for invalid licenses, driving without privileges, (and) they’ve sat in the jail for 45 days because they couldn’t post a small, monetary bond,” Cawthon said during a jail tour Wednesday. “In other words, I’ve got an individual who’s too poor to get out of jail.”

And there are people charged with misdemeanors who fail to show up for court hearings, leading to their arrests — even though they weren’t trying to avoid the hearings.

All of them add to the number of people the Ada County Jail must hold.

“We know, from what’s happened around the state and other places, that once this jail is full, that full jail begins driving criminal justice decisions,” Cawthon said. “We need to be smarter about the decisions we’re making on the bench. We need to be smarter about how we are using our jails.”

The county’s new grant award was a couple of years in the making. It comes from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a nationwide campaign for criminal justice reform.

At one level, it’s an attempt for Ada County to get a handle on its jail population before it grows beyond control. The methods used may also result in a fairer, more appropriate approach to incarceration.

The money, to be provided over two years, will pay for eight new job positions. According to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, those will include inmate case managers, court clerks, a planning analyst and a safety and justice program manager.

Their work will enable the rest of the reforms the county proposes.

One change has already been made. On June 1, county policy was revised to state that anyone arrested for misdemeanor driving without privileges or failure to have insurance will be released without having to post a cash bond. The revision is actually a pilot project approved by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Since then, the policy has helped 32 people avoid any jail time. Most people whom the policy would benefit, however, ended up booked on additional charges that don’t qualify for their release on their own supervision. The sheriff’s office is looking at other ways to expand the policy to those inmates.

Public defenders and prosecutors are also now regularly seeking out inmates with low-level misdemeanors, but who can’t afford bond. They then work with those inmates to get their cases wrapped up and get them out of the jail, the sheriff’s office said.

A county survey of people charged with failure to appear for a court hearing found that 50 percent just didn’t know or forgot about their scheduled court date. Another 24 percent cited transportation issues, and 8 percent said they had work or childcare conflicts.

Because of that problem, Ada County plans to create a notification system that will allow court staff to send out alerts — including texts, emails and phone calls — about upcoming court dates. A new unit at the Public Defender’s Office will help clients navigate the court system and attend their hearings. The county will also pursue increased access to public transportation.

Ada County would be the first county in Idaho to use this kind of notification system. Sheriff Steve Bartlett said the system is much like getting a notification about an appointment made for a dental or medical appointment.

The county’s plan originally included more money to create a behavioral health crisis center. But the state of Idaho will open such a center near the jail in December; county officials hope it will help drop unnecessary jail stays.

Pathways Community Crisis Center, to open at 7192 Potomac Drive in Boise, is expected provide assessment, treatment, and referrals for people who are experiencing a crisis related to mental health or substance abuse disorders.

All involved in the Ada County court system appear optimistic about the project. Cawthon said he hopes the additional staff can bring judges more information about defendants and their histories, to help judges assess whether a person should be in jail or should be released while their case proceeds.

“(We’ll) fulfill our mission of evaluating people, determining who should be in jail, who should not be in jail, and really provide that highest level of service to our community that you all should expect from us,” said Bartlett.