Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito addresses law enforcement, judges, court staff and others during the December roll-out of the Yellowstone County Drug Intervention Program.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

The most basic function of government is to keep its citizens safe. To fulfill that duty, the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office is confronting surges in child abuse, drug-related crime and seriously mentally-ill individuals who need to be hospitalized for the protection of themselves or the community.

Statistics from the Montana Supreme Court Administrator's Office help tell the story of how the county attorneys are working harder than ever to protect victims and hold offenders accountable:

  • In 2010, Yellowstone County filed for the protection of 143 abused or neglected children. In 2016, the number of child protection cases filed soared to 626.
  • In 2010, the county attorneys filed 977 felony cases. In 2016, criminal case filings totaled 2,622.
  • In 2010, the county sought 78 involuntary commitments of adults to Montana State Hospital for psychiatric treatment. In 2016, the number of commitments filed rose to 221.

This summer, the Yellowstone County Commission authorized the hiring of six desperately needed new staff members for the County Attorney’s Office -- two attorneys, three legal assistants and a victim-witness coordinator. County Attorney Scott Twito justified the hiring of two more staffers, but the county simply doesn’t have the money or office space now.

The commission approved the additional staff because of the great and growing need, but Finance Director Kevan Bryan has warned that this level of general fund support for the county attorney isn’t sustainable.

That’s why the County Commission unanimously approved a public safety levy request on the Nov. 7 ballot. The proposal would increase the county attorney levy set at four mills in the year 2000 to about 12 mills. The annual cost of this increase would be about $10.80 on a $100,000 home and $21.60 on a $200,000 home in 2018.

Nobody likes paying more taxes, but all of us want to be safe in our homes, workplaces and communities.

The county is moving ahead, with the approval of voters, on a well-planned jail expansion that won’t raise property taxes. The explosive growth in Yellowstone County District Court workload prompted state lawmakers to authorize the addition of two new judges in January 2019. The state this year also enacted laws to lessen the workload of public defenders so the state wouldn’t have to pay so many of them. The increased demands driving those changes have maxed out the capacity of the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office, too.

In a Sunday guest opinion, County Attorney Scott Twito noted that the county’s child abuse and neglect cases have tripled since 2011 and criminal filings have more than doubled. A third of those criminal cases and a large portion of the child protection cases involved methamphetamine – possession, trafficking, stealing for drug money and parents using meth while neglecting their kids. Many of the folks involuntarily committed to Warm Springs have severe addictions and mental illnesses.

Our community must stand against the scourge of drugs, crime and child abuse. The prosecutors and child protectors need the resources to file and try cases, to aid victims and witnesses and to have the time to consistently do the best job for Yellowstone County citizens.

“The staff at the County Attorney’s Office comes to work each day and tries to do what is just,” Twito wrote in his guest opinion. “Since taking office in 2011, this office has used the resources entrusted to it as effectively and efficiently as possible. But the justice system in your community needs help to keep up with the demand. The office needs adequate staff to take your calls and try your cases.”

We strongly encourage voters to support the public safety levy on your Nov. 7 ballots. The cost of the levy increase is dwarfed by the erosion of vigorous, just and timely law enforcement that we will suffer if the County Attorney’s Office can’t afford to do its job well.

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