The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office counts about 150 active cases involving allegations of sex crimes as of late September.
That caseload is divided among a dozen prosecutors, including County Attorney Scott Twito, who assigned himself several cases. These attorneys also handle the rest of the office’s 2,000 felony criminal cases, plus misdemeanor cases in Justice Court.
The county attorney only counts cases that are reported to law enforcement and presented for prosecution. The majority of sex crimes go unreported and, thus, unprosecuted. But even with reporting, prosecution generally is challenging when the offense involves sexual behavior.
That’s a major reason why the formation of a Sexual Assault Resource Team can be great help to victims of these crimes and to the professionals who are working with the victims.
After months of planning, Twito recently convened a gathering of Yellowstone County stakeholders, including police and sheriff’s detectives, a sexual assault nurse examiner, doctors, licensed therapists, hospital social workers and victim-witness coordinators. Billings YWCA, which provides direct services to victims of sexual assault, also will be a part of the SART, Twito said.
Deputy County Attorneys Morgan Dake and Molly Rose Fehringer will coordinate the team formation. Both attorneys have had specialized training in sex crime prosecution.
“I want get files sooner; I want to make sure victims are getting services before prosecution,” Dake said.
Victims who choose not to proceed with prosecution still need services, said Fehringer, who has trained in helping people affected by the trauma of rape.
Among the 150 active cases, 70 are listed as “sexual intercourse without consent” and 29 of those are in some phase of pretrial or sentencing. The remainder are “unfiled,” which includes cases where the office has been unable to contact the victim or is waiting on other evidence. Getting the DNA results from a rape kit tested at the Montana Crime Lab in Missoula takes about nine months, Twito said.
The list includes seven cases of sexual abuse of children, all of which have felony charges filed. Other sex crimes the office is prosecuting include incest, indecent exposure, sexual assault and two cases of aggravated promotion of prostitution.
The 2017 Legislature extensively reformed laws dealing with sex offenses. The biggest change is the update to the definition of consent. Under the new law, which takes effect today, consent means words or overt actions indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact. The new law says that:
- An expression of lack of consent through word or conduct means no consent or consent withdrawn.
- Current or previous dating relationship or manner of dress does not constitute consent.
The updated law is needed, but the way victims are treated is even more crucial. The interdisciplinary team coordinated by Fehringer and Dake will improve services to victims. Victims, their friends and family must have confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity. The professionals working to help victims deserve to have the best information about how to do their job in concert with other professionals.
The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office has seen its workload explode in the past several years while the tax levy directly supporting it hasn’t increased. On Nov. 7, voters will be asked to pay a little more in annual taxes so that the office can hire enough prosecutors and support staff to avoid delaying justice. When you vote, remember that a “yes” for the levy will assure that bright, young prosecutors like Dake and Fehringer can deliver justice and compassion to crime victims.