The holiday spirit is alive and well in the court system in Butte, Montana.
For the first three weeks of this month, the local municipal court offered defendants an opportunity to knock $150 off their fines with a donation of 30 cans of food to the local food bank.
“(It’s) a good opportunity for folks to have, you know, a little bit less of a fine on their monthly payment,” City Court Judge Jerome McCarthy told CNN, adding that it “would also be of great benefit to the food bank.”
The program was launched in 2019, and McCarthy said it’s been well-received by the public.
But would such a program work in Wyoming?
Relieve Financial Pressure
At this time of year, with money tight for many people, court fines and fees are an added stress for people who are most likely already facing financial hardship.
“In the population that we work with, of course, fines and fees can sometimes be a challenge,” said Heather Carter, director of the Albany County Drug Court in Laramie. “So having an option to do something like that – donating to food banks for some type of community service – on a consistent basis would be great.”
Carter told Cowboy State Daily that the people they work with at the drug court often struggle with basic expenses such as housing and transportation, so having an option to avoid having to pay out more for court fines would help.
Benefit Food Banks
From the perspective of food banks, having a boost in donations around the holidays would help a great number of families, said Rachel Bailey, executive director for Food Bank of Wyoming.
“There’s a lot of people that are in need right now because of high inflation rates and fuel prices – and it’s going to be a nasty winter,” Bailey told Cowboy State Daily. “So, the more food that we can get out there the better.”
Bailey said that many local food pantries around the state are working hard to meet the demands of families, especially at this time of year.
“Communities across Wyoming right now are really struggling with donations of food,” she said.
The Butte program is made possible because of a Montana state statute that allows courts to satisfy part or all of a fine with a donation of food to a food bank.
Tom Keegan, municipal court judge in Cody, said that to the best of his knowledge, there isn’t a Wyoming law that would prevent a municipality from implementing a similar program.
“The city has set bond amounts for the various offenses, but they’re not locked in,” Keegan said. “It’s still up to the court’s discretion, so I think it’d be possible.”
But he said such an option wouldn’t necessarily be in the city’s best interest.
“The food bank would benefit by getting donations,” he said, but the city “would be recouping fewer costs.”
Bailey also acknowledged that while food-for-fines might be a good idea for food banks in the short term, it wouldn’t be feasible in the long run.
“I know that municipalities have to pay their own bills and those fines,” said Bailey. “But anything that communities can do right now to help our Wyoming neighbors in need, we would encourage.”