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AG candidate outlines substance use, crime reduction plan
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AG candidate outlines substance use, crime reduction plan

Austin Knudsen and Raph Graybill

Republican Austin Knudsen, left, and Democrat Raph Graybill, right, are running for Montana attorney general.  

The Democratic candidate for attorney general said the state’s next top cop needs to focus more on addiction and mental health services as an inroad to crime, while his Republican opponent said that’s not the right starting point.

Democrat Raph Graybill and Republican Austin Knudsen are squaring off to be the next leader of the Department of Justice. Graybill is chief legal counsel for Gov. Steve Bullock. Knudsen is the Roosevelt County Attorney.

Graybill released a proposal on Wednesday that he says will address the problems that fuel crime by boosting support for addiction and mental health services. 

Law enforcement in Montana encounters those problems every day, he said.

“They’re seeing it too late in the process,” Graybill said. “Because when it gets to become a criminal justice issue, we as a community have failed to address it on the front end.”

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Montana’s violent crime rate increased 33% between 2014 and 2018, the most recent years reported by the Board of Crime Control. Meth-related crime doubled during that time frame.

Graybill said access to treatment that’s covered by Medicaid Expansion in Montana is critical, calling the Affordable Care Act law that provides for it “the single most important tool in our state” to combat rising substance use.

Under the law, the federal government pays for 90% of the cost of Medicaid Expansion, starting in 2020 and into the future. Approximately 90,000 Montanans are covered by Medicaid Expansion.

Graybill has highlighted Knudsen’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which includes Medicaid Expansion. Knudsen has said the law, also known as "Obamacare," limited health care options and led to higher premiums. 

“Anyone who tells you they’re going to fix the meth problem and get rid of the health care law is delusional,” Graybill said. “That doesn’t work.”

Providers like Rimrock CEO Lenette Kosovich have touted the law's importance, saying: "There is no viable solution to address the mental health and substance use crisis in our state without Medicaid expansion."

Graybill said that if elected, “on day one” he’d take his argument to the U.S. Supreme Court on how a repeal of the law would impact Montana. The challenge to the law, brought by Republican attorneys general, is set to be heard in November and decided in June. 

“The power of advocacy on the wrong side got us to where we are, and it will be the power of advocacy on the right side that stops this lawsuit,” Graybill said.

Graybill’s plan calls for maintaining or increasing funding for prevention programs throughout the state using grants, settlement money and budget requests to the Legislature. He would create a state-tribal justice council to find solutions to the problem of disproportionate representation of Native Americans in Montana’s criminal justice system. He said he’d partner with the existing State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee, but that the new proposed group was needed to convene stakeholders beyond state lawmakers, and to zero in on criminal justice issues in particular.

The plan also promotes de-escalation techniques and training at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy “that allow law enforcement officers to interact effectively, and safely, with non-violent offenders.”

In June, Law Enforcement Academy Administrator Glen Stinar told The Billings Gazette that the academy emphasized emotional intelligence and self-awareness training and was integrating both into classes. That includes 34 hours on "human behavior and social interaction concepts," of which one day is spent on interpersonal communications and verbal de-escalation techniques, according to Division of Criminal Investigation Administrator Bryan Lockerby. The academy also offers a 40 hour crisis intervention training upon request by local law enforcement agency. 

Graybill has touted his time as an auxiliary police officer in New York City while in college. 

In a call Wednesday afternoon, Knudsen said he agreed that limited treatment options were a problem but said his opponent was taking the wrong approach, and the state's crime problem needed a more immediate solution. 

"We’re not going to fix that by doing outreach and practicing de-escalation techniques," Knudsen said. 

Knudsen agreed that treatment options, including drug courts, needed to “be part of the conversation here as we’re moving forward with the drug problem.” He’s said the lack of local treatment options in rural Montana is expensive for counties when a deputy has to drive someone across the state to Warm Springs for court-ordered treatment. He said more public-private partnerships to expand treatment options would help.

Knudsen called Graybill's plan "platitudes from a naïve lawyer who’s never dealt with this area of law at all." 

Instead, Knudsen said what’s needed is more resources for local law enforcement agencies. He noted there are “a lot of part-time county attorneys still with no staff, and they’re running a law practice on the side to make a living.”

Knudsen has said the Department of Justice budget has grown too much in recent years and spending at the department needed to be scaled back. 

Since 2013, the department's budget has grown 27%, the largest portion of which was at the Montana Highway Patrol. Omitting growth in the MHP's budget since 2013, the remainder of the department's budget has grown by 13%.

Since 2013, MHP has created three drug interdiction teams with K9 units and 18 full-time positions. Another part of the increase at MHP owes to routine salary increase requests at the Legislature, after the agency saw a retention problem in 2005, according to information provided by the Department of Justice. Trooper salaries are not included in the general state employee pay increase cycle and are handled instead through legislative budget requests. 

According to a budget breakdown provided by the Department of Justice, the division with the next largest increase in dollars spent since 2013 is the Division of Criminal Investigation. That division has added one instructor for the academy, three investigators for Sexual and Violent Offender Registry and other areas, and three support staff for the new drug interdiction teams. 

Knudsen said illegal drugs and crime were a priority.

“And the only way we’re going to tackle that is with more law enforcement,” he said.

Knudsen was elected Roosevelt County attorney in 2018. He has practiced law for roughly 12 years, most of which was in private practice. 

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