HELENA – A commission tasked with advising Governor Greg Gianforte on how to spend federal coronavirus stimulus money allocated to economic development on Wednesday approved a proposal that would put $ 2.3 million in Montana’s share of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act toward crime control efforts in Billings.
Supporters of the spending, including Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Billings Mayor Bill Cole, told the Committee of Lawmakers and State Officials on 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 reported violent crime in the city increased by nearly 40% between June 2020 and August 2021. They also cited a survey of businesses conducted by the Billings Chamber of Commerce this spring in which 53% of respondents said they had been moderately or greatly affected by public safety concerns.
“The coronavirus is more than just a health crisis in Billings and Yellowstone County. It sparked an epidemic of crime and economic instability, ”Cole said.
“For the record, I can tell you that a lot of my neighbors have stopped coming to Billings because they don’t feel safe downtown,” said Knudsen, who was previously a Roosevelt County District Attorney in northeastern Montana.
If approved by the governor, the proposal would provide money for the state’s public defender’s office to deal with a backlog of cases in Billings. It would also allow the Montana Justice Department’s Criminal Investigations Department to hire three new officers to focus on drug issues and violent crime in Yellowstone County.
The City of Billings and the County of Yellowstone said in correspondence provided to the commission that they have each pledged to contribute an additional $ 1 million to their respective public safety efforts. The city, which Cole says could use its own share of federal stimulus funds to fund that pledge, also has a $ 7.1 million public safety tax on its ballot this fall.
The pandemic, Cole said, has produced more mental health, domestic violence and substance abuse crises, enough to fill the local jail and support the justice system with criminal cases. Some companies, he said, have moved out of downtown and other high crime areas or have hired officers on leave to provide security.
“Companies cannot 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 sentenced the director of the state’s Public Defender’s Office for contempt of the state’s public defender system to appoint attorneys for those accused of crimes in the area of Timely Billings. According to the Billings Gazette, an office administrator told the judge it was struggling with chronic understaffing, low salaries and high turnover. As of July 31, the county had 663 unattributed cases, the Gazette reported.
The proposed $ 1.5 million for the Office of the Public Defender would allow the office to hire more public defenders to deal with crimes and cases of child abuse and neglect, while hiring contract defense lawyers to deal with misdemeanor cases.
Knudsen also said on Wednesday that because the Yellowstone County Jail is full, the justice system frequently releases people instead of jailing them following arrests for violent crimes, sometimes resulting in the same people being arrested overnight. night.
“We’re seeing more and more guns on the streets of Billings – that wasn’t a thing before,” Knudsen said. “Look, the criminals are getting more and more brazen because they know that the Billings system is largely at full capacity.”
Republicans and Democrats on the commission, which is responsible for allocating stimulus funds for economic development purposes, approved the proposal at Wednesday’s meeting, passing it to the governor, a Republican, for final approval.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbot D-Helena said in a separate press appeal on Wednesday that she was grateful that the proposal provided additional resources to the public defender system, but that she was grateful for the proposal. hopes the Justice Department will use the money for more than “law enforcement.” “only” approach.
“I think sometimes our system is put in place to say that a conviction is successful,” she said. “What I would like to say is that we are going into treatment and seeing it as a success and changing the way we think about it. It saves us money, it stabilizes families and it makes communities safer.