Sexual assault is a heinous crime. An authoritative study has concluded that one in three American women will be sexually abused in their lifetime. The physical and emotional damage can be deep and long-lasting. That’s why I took the U.S. Department of Justice’s questions about the handling of sexual assault cases in Missoula seriously, and sought understanding and answers.
Recently my office secured agreements that not only ended the escalating battle between the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice, but also established a robust plan to ensure sexual assault crimes throughout Montana are prosecuted vigorously and that victims are treated appropriately. We intervened to settle the controversy to prevent two governments from engaging in a long, taxpayer-funded legal battle that would do nothing to further justice, help victims, or restore confidence in our criminal justice system.
The U.S. Department of Justice attempted to assert an unprecedented level of control over the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, and as Montana’s chief legal officer I concluded it lacked the authority to do so. The agreements we brokered keep the control and authority right here in our state, with my office, where Montana law says they belong.
With the litigation dropped and the legal fight behind us, we must now move forward and focus on prosecuting offenders and helping victims.
We viewed the controversy in Missoula as an opportunity to do better. In the coming months, my office will be working with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office to develop a framework to ensure that prosecutors there have the tools they need to bring perpetrators of sexual assault to justice while treating victims compassionately and fairly. Taking the lessons learned in Missoula, we will make greater resources available throughout Montana to improve the way prosecutors, victims’ advocates, and investigators handle sexual assault cases.
Last month, my office began offering county attorneys and their deputies specialized training. So far, we have held three regional seminars, and more will follow. Our goal is to make sure every sexual assault prosecutor is trained in the dynamics of this complex area of criminal law.
Because sexual assault cases are among the most difficult to investigate and prosecute, we will develop “best practices” for handling these types of cases. Emphasis will be placed on ensuring victims are treated properly, and that they are communicated with openly. Local county attorneys’ offices can then use these policies and guidelines to develop solutions for their communities.
2015 funding request
Many county attorneys in Montana lack the resources to hire the expert witnesses that can be necessary for a successful sexual assault prosecution. Next year I will ask the Montana Legislature to allocate resources for helping our county attorneys secure these expert witnesses. Not every county in Montana has the local resources or expertise to maintain specialized in-house sexual assault prosecution services, but we cannot let that stand in the way of justice for Montanans.
Sexual assaults in our communities are Montana challenges deserving of Montana solutions. These crimes are violations of Montana law, are investigated by Montana law enforcement, and prosecuted in Montana courts. The victims are our friends, family members, and neighbors. To be meaningful and truly reflective of our values, the solutions to these challenges must be made by and for Montanans.
Ultimately, our goals are to bring the guilty to justice, dispel the myths that seek to blame female victims, and make sure victims of sexual assault crimes receive compassion and justice. I look forward to working with local prosecutors, law enforcement, judges, victims’ advocates, legislators, and all stakeholders on this critical public safety issue.