By Eric Dietrich, Montana Free Press
HELENA — A commission tasked with advising Gov. Greg Gianforte on how to spend federal coronavirus stimulus money allocated for economic development endorsed a proposal Wednesday that would put $2.3 million from Montana’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funds toward crime-fighting efforts in Billings.
Proponents of the spending, including Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Billings Mayor Bill Cole, told the commission of lawmakers and state officials Wednesday that the city, Montana’s largest, is experiencing “economic instability” due to an increase in violent crime during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data collected by the Billings Police Department, they said, shows that violent crime reported in the city increased by nearly 40% between June 2020 and August 2021. They also cited a business survey conducted by the Billings Chamber of Commerce this spring in which 53% of respondents reported being impacted moderately or greatly by public safety concerns.
“The coronavirus is more than just a health crisis in Billings and Yellowstone County. It’s triggered an epidemic of crime and economic instability,” Cole said.
“Anecdotally, I can tell you that a lot of my neighbors have stopped coming to Billings because they do not feel safe downtown,” said Knudsen, who previously served as the Roosevelt County attorney in northeast Montana.
If approved by the governor, the proposal would provide money to the Office of the State Public Defender to address a case backlog in Billings. It would also let the Montana Department of Justice’s Department of Criminal Investigation hire three new agents to focus on drug issues and violent crime in Yellowstone County.
The city of Billings and Yellowstone County say in correspondence provided to the commission that they have each committed to contributing an additional $1 million to their respective public safety efforts. The city, which Cole said may use its own share of federal stimulus money to fund that commitment, also has a $7.1 million public safety levy on its ballot this fall.
The pandemic, Cole said, has produced more mental health crises, domestic violence and substance abuse, enough to fill the local jail and back up the court system with criminal cases. Some businesses, he said, have moved out of downtown and other high-crime areas or hired off-duty police officers to provide security.
“Businesses can’t attract or retain workers if their employees have to work at night or in dangerous areas,” he said.
Last month, a Yellowstone County District Judge held the director of the Office of the State Public Defender in contempt over the state public defender system’s inability to assign attorneys to people who have been charged with crimes in the Billings area in a timely manner. According to the Billings Gazette, an administrator with the office told the judge it was struggling with chronic understaffing, low pay and high turnover. As of July 31, the county had 663 unassigned cases, the Gazette reported.
The $1.5 million proposed for the public defender’s office would enable the office hire more staff public defenders to handle felonies and child abuse and neglect cases, while hiring contract defense attorneys to tackle misdemeanor cases.
Knudsen also said Wednesday that, because the Yellowstone County jail is full, the justice system is frequently releasing people instead of jailing them following arrests for violent crimes, sometimes resulting in officers arresting the same people night after night.
“We’re seeing more and more guns on the streets in Billings — that didn’t used to be a thing,” Knudsen said. “Look, the criminals are becoming more and more brazen because they know that the system in Billings is largely at capacity.”
Both Republicans and Democrats on the commission, which is responsible for allocating stimulus money for economic development purposes, endorsed the proposal at Wednesday’s meeting, passing it along to the governor, a Republican, for final approval.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbot, D-Helena, said in a separate press call Wednesday that she is grateful the proposal provides additional resources to the public defender system, but that she hopes the Department of Justice will use the money for more than an “enforcement-only” approach.
“I think sometimes our system is set up to say that a conviction is success,” she said. “What I’d like to say is, let’s defer to treatment and consider that a success and change the way we’re thinking about this. It saves us money, it stabilizes families, and it makes communities safer.”