Butte-Silver Bow has a new program allowing some adult misdemeanor offenders to perform community service work instead of paying hefty fines or doing more jail time.
City Court Judge Glen Granger started the program a few weeks ago after working out details with county officials, including Chief Executive Dave Palmer, Budget Director Danette Gleason, and the Community Enrichment Department.
Granger oversees about 1,200 criminal cases and 3,000 traffic offenses each year. In many cases, defendants are unemployed and cannot afford to pay serious fines. At the same time, the jail is often full or almost full.
Granger says the program is potentially available to anyone, not just those who can’t pay their fines. But he does not plan to assign work to anyone he considers mentally unstable or dangerous, including violent offenders.
But for others, he said, community service might make sense.
“This will give us another tool and approach to say, ‘Do you want to do community service or jail time?’” Granger said.
Granger has sentenced a handful of offenders to community work so far, all reporting to Community Enrichment for work that can include cleaning up lots or alleys or, as Palmer put it, “whatever needs to be done that day.”
“It’s not going to be hard labor or anything,” Palmer said. “It may be working at an event, it could be in the parks, or it could be shoveling snow. It could be sprucing up the grounds around the courthouse.”
Defendants who are charged only with misdemeanor offenses or violations of Butte-Silver Bow ordinances go before Granger, while those involving felonies are sent to District Court. Misdemeanors resulting from citations by the Montana Highway Patrol in the county typically go to Justice Court.
But some misdemeanor offenses, including repeated thefts or first- and second-time partner or family member assaults, can carry jail terms of six months to a year and fines up to $1,500.
Other common misdemeanors include driving with suspended or revoked licenses, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, contempt of court, and resisting arrest. Certain drug charges can be misdemeanors, too.
James Reavis, who challenged Granger for city judge in 2016, made a community service program for adult offenders a cornerstone of his campaign. He said Butte was the only city in Montana with 10,000 or more people that did not have one.
Granger, who was easily re-elected with 68 percent of the vote, agreed on the need for community service as an alternative sentencing. But he said then that the program needed accountability measures and safeguards first, among other things. Now, he says, those are in place.
Granger said he implemented the first community service sentencing for youth offenders in Butte-Silver Bow in the 1990s. He was chief juvenile probation officer for the Butte district at one time.
Under the new adult program, offenders are to report to Community Enrichment for tasks and duties, and department officials monitor their work, hours, and compliance, Granger said.
They must wear orange vests that say “City Court” on the backs, and they cannot mix with juvenile offenders, he said. If they don’t show up, he can issue warrants to have them picked up for not complying with court orders.
That happened this past Friday when Community Enrichment informed him a man did not report for his work assignments. He issued a bench warrant the same day.
Because the program is so new, Granger also has been meeting with department officials each Friday to review matters and make any needed refinements.
Gleason, the budget director, said the county has insurance covering any liability issues. That had to be assured before the program started.
Palmer and Granger said they are exploring the possibility of using surcharges that offenders pay to offset insurance and program costs.
Palmer said the program can benefit the offender and the county at the same time.
“Instead of fining them $100, make it maybe $10 and 10 hours of community service,” he said.