Yellowstone County prosecutors told Montana lawmakers Tuesday they’re making good use of a new felony strangulation law, but that sufficient punishment isn't always guaranteed.
In a presentation to the Law and Justice Interim Committee in Helena, Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Molly Rose Fehringer said the county has filed 94 charges so far in 2018. That’s up from the 33 filed in 2017, after the law took effect upon passage on May 19, 2017.
Proponents said it was a needed change that filled a gap in Montana’s laws on domestic violence.
Staff from the Department of Justice echoed the need for the law during Tuesday’s hearing.
“What you’re seeing in the numbers is that it was not just a feel-good statute,” said Assistant Attorney General Anna Saverud. “It was needed.”
Public defenders are seeing their work increase as a result of the change in law.
Peter Ohman, Division Administrator for the Office of the Public Defender, said that an additional two full-time equivalent attorneys were needed to handle the growing strangulation caseload. Many cases were charged as misdemeanors in the past, which require fewer attorney hours, Ohman said.
While prosecutors are pleased they’ve been able to utilize the new law, Fehringer said some are concerned perpetrators won’t receive sufficient punishments.
A first strangulation conviction does not require prison time, Fehringer said, and many have been sentenced to probation.
Because the new law was not added to the state’s “crime of violence” statutes, anyone convicted of strangulation is considered a non-violent offender under Montana law — provided they don't have other crimes on their record.
Fehringer said by the time someone gets charged with felony strangulation, it’s rarely the first time they've been violent with a family member.
Fehringer and Morgan Dake, also a deputy Yellowstone County Attorney, have been working with local law enforcement and emergency medical responders to better train them on what the attorneys need to prove a case.
For instance, police are encouraged to ask a victim if she saw stars, or if her voice got raspy after the attack and if her throat was sore. Dake said all those can help prove strangulation, while in the past, police might have documented only that she said she was choked.
Fehringer said the trainings have paid off, as more police reports now contain the sort of details necessary to secure a conviction.
The work ties in with other local efforts to better serve domestic violence victims through a multidisciplinary team begun in the fall of 2017.