Bare bones 

Public safety conscerns arise over deep budget cuts

In the two weeks since Gov. Judy Martz and the Legislature trimmed $57 million from the state’s budget, dangerous public safety repercussions have begun to surface. Budget cuts at the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Corrections (DOC) will make protecting the public much more difficult, according to the state’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Mike McGrath.

“If you add them all together—the governor’s cuts and the special session’s cuts—we’re down about a million dollars,” says McGrath. But the shortfall of funds isn’t the most troublesome problem facing the DOJ. To make ends meet, the state has imposed “vacancy savings” on the department. McGrath says his department is now required to operate with at least 42 positions vacant.

“It’s going to make it real tough,” he says. “A seven percent cut in the general fund for staff effectively reduces our ability to hire the criminal investigators, forensic scientists, and attorneys we need to assist local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors who need our help with complex or unusually difficult cases.”

With the number of requests the department receives for assistance climbing every year, particularly with the sharp increase in the number of methamphetamine labs operating in Montana, there is the potential that fewer lawbreakers will be brought to justice in the future.

The Criminal Investigations arm of the DOJ has already lost four positions, most of whom were deputies at the state’s Fire Prevention and Investigation Bureau.

“Given the fact that we had to reduce people from the fire marshal’s office it already does affect public safety,” says DOJ Criminal Investigations Administrator Mike Batista. “If there are life safety inspections on schools, day care centers, and things like that that need to be done in a timely fashion, well, we’re short resources to do that now.”

This means that buildings such as schools or hospitals that are unsafe may not be inspected soon enough, or in some case, not at all.

Over the past decades, local law enforcement has increasingly relied on the DOJ’s Criminal Investigations services. Now the department is gearing up to have a more active role in homeland security, while forced to work with fewer resources.

“Historically, our funding has really been held together by federal grant funds,” says Batista. “And thank God for that.” Banking on federal dollars has become the norm not the exception, which makes Batista and his peers uneasy.

Another arm of the Justice Department that may be affected is the state’s Forensic Science Laboratory, which is already struggling on limited resources. Like many crime labs around the country, the Missoula-based lab has a surfeit of evidence that has yet to be processed and returned to investigators.

“We have a considerable backlog,” says lab administrator Bill Unger. “In latent prints we’re about a year behind, in drug chemistry we’re approximately three months behind, in meth labs we’re six to seven months behind.”

The slow pace at which the lab processes evidence is due primarily to its small staff. If the department loses even a single staff position, says Unger, they will have no chance of eliminating their backlog. All this leads to a hampering of the ability to investigate and prosecute suspects.

“My concern in the drug chemistry section is that you have undercover officers who are buying suspected drugs from dealers and they’re having to wait four or five months to find out if what they are buying are illegal drugs,” says Unger.

If the lab cannot hand over evidence to prosecutors quickly, the potential rises for courts to dismiss those cases. This doesn’t happen often but it does happen, Unger admits.

While high-priority cases, like last November’s gruesome triple homicide in Florence, are expedited, bumping up cases only slows down the investigations of lesser crimes, like burglary and drug dealing.

Even if McGrath and the departments he oversees manage to maintain the current level of public safety, the budget crisis has created security concerns at Corrections as well. The DOC is currently developing a new system to manage its shortfall, which involves moving inmates into less confining—and less expensive—environments more quickly.

“We’re going to look at moving people from the institutional environment to the less restrictive environments,” says Montana State Prison Warden Mike Mahoney. “The intent behind the whole thing is to save money.”

This doesn’t mean that individuals will have their sentences shortened, but probation periods—or suspended sentences—will be abbreviated.

“This is not something being done under the guise of a good correctional practice,” says Mahoney. “This is something that’s being done as a response to the fact that there isn’t the budget to do business the way we have traditionally done it.”

According to a press release issued by the DOC, inmates will have to meet established criteria developed by the Department before being moved, and normal procedure will apply for notifying victims and registering violent and sexual offenders. But the simple fact is offenders will move through the system faster then ever before. “I think collectively all of us in Corrections, the state Legislature and the state citizenry are going to have some tough choices,” says Mahoney. “We’re going to have to make some hard decisions about how important public safety is.”

In January, legislators will again come to Helena to deal with budgetary challenges. According to a letter sent by Gov. Judy Martz to newspapers around the state, approximately $250 million more will need to be trimmed. If the DOJ and DOC again fall under the knife, the result will be a less secure Montana.

“I think people need to understand that state government has been cut and cut and cut,” says McGrath. “And we’re long past the point where we’re cutting away the fat. We’re cutting bone here. This means it’s harder to do our job.”

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