Last year, the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office reviewed 1,989 potential felony cases submitted by law enforcement authorities and filed 1,506, according to County Attorney Scott Twito.
That number again broke the annual record. Felony case filings in our county totaled 677 in 2010 and have increased rapidly since then. Crime related to drugs, particularly methamphetamine, has driven much of the increase in crime and criminal charges.
Along with the rise in crime, our community has suffered an epidemic of child abuse and neglect, largely driven by parental addiction to meth, opioids, alcohol and other drugs. Last year, the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office filed court cases for the protection of 574 children because of abuse or neglect in their own homes. That number doesn’t count some old cases that were reopened. More than 900 Yellowstone County children were in the state foster care system this month.
Yellowstone County also has seen a surge in mental health commitments and juvenile criminal cases in the past few years.
All of these factors have tremendously increased the work of the court system. Fortunately, Yellowstone County voters recognized the need to address this workload growth by approving a tax levy increase to fund the county attorney’s office. The levy passed in November 2017 will appear on property tax statements sent out starting in November 2018.
In 2011, the year Twito took office, his staff was 23 attorneys, including himself. Now that the criminal caseload has doubled and the child neglect caseload has tripled, the office has an additional four attorneys for a total of 27. Two attorneys were added just for the civil child abuse and neglect work.
Twito also hired four new non-attorney support staffers last summer, with one-time budget approval from the Yellowstone County Commission. The levy increase Yellowstone County voters approved in November will allow the office to sustain those hires. That levy increase was the first since voters created that county attorney levy in 2000.
In a recent interview, Twito told The Gazette that he hasn’t decided what additional staff will be needed this year or next. Decisions about how court cases will be allocated among eight judges starting next year will affect his office. He’s waiting to learn how many courtrooms he will need to staff for the types of cases his office handles: criminal, child neglect, involuntary commitments and juvenile justice.
“In this phase, we will continue to work with what we have,” he said.
Meanwhile, the office is working on several initiatives:
- A first-time offender program to get drug users into effective treatment quickly and out system for good — if they stay off drugs for a year.
- The Sexual Assault Response Team that Twito and deputy county attorneys started forming last year is continuing to meet with community partners concerned with improving services to victims of sex crimes.
- The Children’s Advocacy Center that Twito helped to establish will be relocating with the closure of the Center for Children and Families. But Twito said the advocacy center has funding to continue its work to protect children who have been sexually abused. The multi-disciplinary team of law enforcement, court, health care and social service professionals will continue collaborating without interruption, he said.
The 2017 Montana Legislature changed laws with the intent of making the state public defender workload more manageable. The legislature authorized the two new district judges for Yellowstone County, starting in January 2019. But it was up to voters of Yellowstone County to ensure that our county legal team had the personnel needed to keep up with the burgeoning justice workload.
Thanks to voters and the careful, innovative approach of Twito and his staff, Yellowstone County is better prepared to enforce laws that help keep our communities safe.