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State sending $2.3M to bolster public safety in Yellowstone County
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State sending $2.3M to bolster public safety in Yellowstone County

Downtown shooting scene

In this file photo from June 24, Billings Police investigate after two men were shot in the alley between 1st and 2nd Avenue North and North 27th Street just before midnight.   

Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Tuesday the state is investing more than $2.3 million to improve public safety and increase economic stability in Yellowstone County.

The Economic Transformation and Stabilization, and Workforce Development Advisory Commission recommended the governor invest $1.5 million in the Office of State Public Defender to bolster staff in the agency to address cases in Yellowstone County. The commission further recommended an $815,000 investment in the Montana Department of Justice to hire criminal agents to help address drug and violent crime in Yellowstone County.

“Over the course of the pandemic, Yellowstone County has seen a significant increase in drug-related and violent crime, threatening both public safety and the vitality of local businesses,” Gianforte said in a press release. “With this investment, the Montana Department of Justice and Office of Public Defender will work alongside the county and city to address public safety concerns and increase economic stability in Yellowstone County.”

The announcement follows local officials, including County Attorney Scott Twito and Billings administrator Chris Kukulski, raising the alarm on the unprecedented crime levels and disproportionate number of department of corrections inmates being supervised in the community.

Billings saw violent crime increase dramatically during the pandemic. Partner or family member assault charges increased by 48% from 2019 to 2020, and strangulation charges increased 35% in that same period, according to Project Safe Neighborhoods data from the Billings Police Department.

“This proposal is part of our effort at the Montana Department of Justice to get public safety resources out of Helena and into the hands of local law enforcement agencies to fight crime,” Attorney General Austin Knudsen said.

The Office of the Public Defender has had its woes also put on display for the public after Yellowstone County District Judge Donald Harris held the agency in contempt for failing to assign attorneys to cases in a timely manned. The hearing exposed staffing shortages, recruitment issues and pay disparities among the agencies attorneys. 

Yellowstone County and the City of Billings have also made investments to address the issue. Yellowstone County dedicated $1 million of its ARPA local financial recovery funds over the next three years to hire two prosecutors focused on violent felony domestic and drug-related crimes, alongside two paralegals tasked with expediting criminal proceedings.

“It is great to see our city, county and state agencies coming together to address the growing violent crime in Yellowstone County,” Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said. “As the sheriff, I have a responsibility to make sure we have the ability to lock up these violent offenders. Getting defendants through the system is critical to making room in our jail for those who would commit crimes in our community.”

The City of Billings also dedicated $1 million to fund law enforcement and prosecution services over the next three years.

"COVID has aggravated crime in Billings, so we are laser-focused on protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable,” Billings Mayor Bill Cole said. “It is essential that all levels of government work as a team to attack this problem, and we appreciate the governor's leadership that has made this partnership possible."

Funding for the governor’s investment is appropriated under Section 12 of HB 632 and will be dispersed over the next three years.

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