County attorneys

County attorneys, from left, Wyatt Glade, Jed Fitch, Scott Twito, Bill Fulbright and Marty Lambert address the Montana Legislature's Law and Justice Interim Committee in Billings on March 19.

Montana State Crime Lab found methamphetamine in 2,475 evidence samples tested in criminal drug cases last year, according to statistics presented last week to the Montana Forensic Laboratory Advisory Board. In 2016, testing in Missoula and Billings found meth in 2,093 evidence samples; in 2011, only 480 samples tested positive for meth.

That explosion of meth use has loaded up our courts, jails and prisons. While felony drug possession cases increased, so have violent and property crimes. Other drugs are abused in Montana, but meth dwarfs them all in terms of contributing to crime and child neglect statewide.

The traditional track of prosecution and punishment too often fails to prevent repeat drug-related offenses. That’s why the Montana County Attorneys Association has proposed a drug diversion program to get addicted offenders into treatment quickly. The prosecutors aim to stop the cycle of drug use, crime, arrest, incarceration, drug use, crime, arrest, incarceration.

The diversion program is a top priority for the 2019 Legislature, according to Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, Custer County Attorney Wyatt Glade and Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert, who spoke last week with The Gazette.

“Why don’t we try to keep people out of the criminal justice system if they don’t have to be there? It’s high stakes, high rewards,” said Glade, who is vice president of the Montana County Attorneys Assocation. “It affects people in smaller counties. It affects people in larger counties.”

The goal is to “move efficiently and quickly” to divert people charged with their first felony drug offense into treatment — if they have no violent criminal record. The county attorney would offer the offender a deal: plead guilty, complete the treatment recommended by a licensed addiction counselor, avoid further criminal activity and their record will be cleared. The county attorneys expect that putting money into treatment at the start of drug cases will result in significant savings for the state on court and public defender time, prison, pre-release, probation and parole.

They envision addiction treatment beginning within days of arrest, rather than in months as typically occurs now. They expect it will take most participants 12-18 months to complete treatment and have their records cleared.

Court cases take so long that drug offenders have been arrested and charged with a second offense while the first case is still pending, Twito said. 

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“It’s not unusual for a criminal possession of dangerous drugs charge to take a year to resolve,” Lambert noted. “Waiting a year for treatment of a low-risk offender is a setback.” Lambert wants to promote “immediate accountability.”

The Department of Corrections has reported that 74 percent of offenders fail to complete probation, which means they are in the system longer and slowly cycling into prison, Twito said. 

The program needs to be implemented statewide because the problem is statewide. The county attorneys are looking to the state to fund and coordinate the diversion program through a state agency. But they are adamant that the county prosecutors must have the final say on who is eligible for the program because they are responsible for community safety.

Glade, Lambert and Twito presented the diversion proposal to the Interim Law and Justice Committee when it met last month in Billings. Thanks to Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, for requesting a placeholder bill for the drug treatment diversion program. With 614 felony drug cases filed in Yellowstone County alone, our community has a big stake in changing the system that is now nearly overwhelmed. 

We call on all Montana lawmakers and legislative candidates to contact their county attorneys to learn more about this plan. The present system isn’t deterring the epidemic of meth use. Now is the time to intervene to cut demand for illegal drugs. Let’s get more addicts out of the criminal system and into effective treatment.

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