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In this Montana city, defendants can pay off their court fines with food bank donations

By Zoe Sottile, CNN

For the third year in a row, a Montana city is embracing the holiday spirit by allowing defendants to pay off some of their court fines with donations to the local food bank.

Butte, Montana, launched the initiative in 2019, according to City Court Judge Jerome McCarthy. The project has brought in thousands of pounds of canned food for the Butte Emergency Food Bank, McCarthy said.

The program is possible because of Montana’s criminal procedure statue, which states that “a court may permit a part or all of a fine to be satisfied by a donation of food to a food bank program.”

In Butte, officials at the city and justice courts decided that most of December defendants would be able to exchange a donation of 30 cans to the food bank for $150 off their fine.

Judicial officials “thought that it’d be a good opportunity for folks to have, you know, a little bit less of a fine on their monthly payment” and “would also be of great benefit to the food bank,” McCarthy said. It’s “just a win-win situation,” he said.

Donating food also provides an emotional boost for defendants paying off their fines, according to the judge. “It makes them feel a little better,” he said, adding that hundreds of defendants have participated in the program so far.

This year’s donation-for-fine program opened on December 1 and will end on December 21, McCarthy says. They hope to assemble “a pretty good amount of food before Christmas,” he said.

The community has embraced the initiative, McCarthy says.

“The folks here in Butte, in my opinion, are extremely giving and willing to help folks, particularly those that are struggling, and so the community response has been very good,” he said.

He said that he hopes the city’s unique fundraiser inspires people to help out others “that are down and out, whether it be with paying a fine or with trying to make ends meet.”

It represents a “good holiday spirit,” McCarthy added.

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