BILLINGS - More than $2.3 million is being invested by the State of Montana to improve public safety and increase economic stability in Yellowstone County.
“Over the course of the pandemic, Yellowstone County has seen a significant increase in drug-related and violent crime, threatening both public safety and the vitality of local businesses,” Governor Greg Gianforte said. “With this investment, the Montana Department of Justice and Office of Public Defender will work alongside the county and city to address public safety concerns and increase economic stability in Yellowstone County.”
Recommended by the Economic Transformation and Stabilization and Workforce Development Advisory Commission, the investment includes $1.5 million for the Office of State Public Defender (OPD) for staff to address cases in Yellowstone County and $815,000 for the Montana Department of Justice to hire criminal agents to help address drug and violent crime.
According to Project Safe Neighborhoods data from the Billings Police Department, the city saw violent crime increase dramatically during the pandemic. Partner or family member assault charges increased by 48% from 2019 to 2020, and strangulation charges increased 35% from 2019 to 2020.
“This proposal is part of our effort at the Montana Department of Justice to get public safety resources out of Helena and into the hands of local law enforcement agencies to fight crime,” Attorney General Austin Knudsen said. “I’m incredibly thankful to DCI Administrator Bryan Lockerby who brought the idea to use ARPA funds for public safety in Montana forward and to Governor Gianforte and lawmakers for recognizing the need for public safety resources in Yellowstone County.”
Yellowstone County and the City of Billings have also made investments to address the issue. As stated in a release, the county dedicated $1 million of its ARPA Local Financial Recovery funds over the next three years to hire two violent crime prosecutors focused on violent felony domestic and drug related crimes and two paralegals tasked with instituting and expediting the processing of criminal charges.
“It is great to see our city, county and state agencies coming together to address the growing violent crime in Yellowstone County,” Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said. “As the Sheriff, I have a responsibility to make sure we have the ability to lock up these violent offenders. Getting defendants through the system is critical to making room in our jail for those who would commit crimes in our community. The plan that has been developed by our state and local leaders will go a long way in making Billings and Yellowstone County, safer for all who live, work or just want to visit our great community.”
The City of Billings has also dedicated $1 million to fund law enforcement and prosecution services over the next three years.
"COVID has aggravated crime in Billings, so we are laser-focused on protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable,” Mayor Bill Cole said. “It is essential that all levels of government work as a team to attack this problem, and we appreciate the governor's leadership that has made this partnership possible."
Funding for the governor’s investment is appropriated under Section 12 of HB 632 and will be dispersed over the next three years.