Missoula Democrats: Reprioritize funding for sexual assault cases over lawsuits

2014-04-17T22:19:00Z 2014-11-06T12:26:05Z Missoula Democrats: Reprioritize funding for sexual assault cases over lawsuitsBy Keila Szpaller Missoulian The Billings Gazette
April 17, 2014 10:19 pm  • 

MISSOULA — The Missoula Democratic Central Committee adopted a resolution this month calling on the Missoula County attorney and Board of County Commissioners to “realign their financial resources to create meaningful improvements in addressing sexual assault cases.”

“The crime of sexual assault produces lifelong consequences, and all allegations of sexual assault need to be taken seriously by law enforcement and other institutions that have power in Missoula,” reads part of the resolution.

On Thursday, Missoula County Democrats board chairman Dave Kendall said county officials are making progress in providing services for victims and bringing justice to bear on perpetrators. However, he said the legal dispute between the County Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice remains a concern.

“We think the money should be spent on helping victims and not on lawsuits,” Kendall said.

Commissioners earlier approved a request for $50,000 by County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg to spend on litigation against the DOJ. On Thursday, Van Valkenburg said it’s premature to know the direction his office will take with respect to the resolution given the ongoing legal conflict, but he anticipated more discussion would take place this summer.

“I think that we’ll definitely talk to the commissioners about the whole matter of prosecution of sexual assaults in the context of budget discussions that occur in June, and we also have to kind of factor in what’s going on with respect to litigation with the U.S. Department of Justice,” Van Valkenburg said.

The department is making changes to the way it handles sexual assaults. However, Van Valkenburg said statistics show Missoula already has done well compared to other places, and he and the National District Attorneys Association question the authority of the federal agency to interfere with a locally elected officer.

County Commission Chairwoman Jean Curtiss said the resolution will be considered public comment, and she agreed any monetary “realignments” would take place as part of the upcoming budget process. Curtiss said she does not know of budget enhancement requests in the pipeline, but she is eager to hear recommendations to make improvements for victims in a upcoming study.

“We’re actually looking forward to any information that comes out of the community assessment that’s going to be done regarding the needs of victims in our community,” Curtiss said. “So we’ll be looking at what’s the best thing to do for the community as to their resolution.”

A draft resolution had called on commissioners to withdraw funding for the lawsuit, but the adopted resolution shifted focus: “The … committee calls on the Missoula County Commissioners to prioritize putting its energy and financial resources towards assisting the County Attorney in ensuring adequate training and resources exist, and towards communicating any improvements or deficiencies to the public so that confidence in the County Attorney’s office can be restored.”

County Attorney Van Valkenburg said his office has been communicating quite a bit on the matter and would continue to do so in the next few weeks and possibly months. He pointed to a December agreement between his office and the Missoula Police Department as outlining a couple key changes in prosecuting rape cases.

First, the memorandum of understanding notes the County Attorney’s Office is committed to helping police improve the experience of victims in the criminal justice system.

As such, in cases recommended for prosecution, the County Attorney’s Office agrees to render a decision to the investigator within two weeks of referral.

“We’ve also agreed in that memorandum to have face-to-face meetings with victims and discuss with them the reasons cases are being declined for prosecution, if that’s the result,” Van Valkenburg said.

According to Kendall, rape myths are the next barrier the community needs to confront to successfully prosecute sexual assault. He said the Missoula County Democrats plan to take a more comprehensive look at myths as impediments.

“When juries convene, there are kind of old myths that are about rape that people bring to the jury,” Kendall said. “And the only way to stop that from happening is to confront those myths publicly.”

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