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Governor talks rising crime with law enforcement in Billings

Governor's roundtable.jpg
Posted at 10:04 AM, Jan 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-24 12:04:06-05

Gov. Greg Gianforte came to Billings Friday for a round table discussion about increases in drug-related and violent crimes at the Billings Public Library's Royal Johnson Community Room.

In November, Gianforte announced $2.3 million going to Yellowstone County for public defenders and investigators of drug and violent crime.

He heard about concerns with drug addiction, mental health and the jail.

"And what strategies are working in Yellowstone County?" Gianforte asked.

As Billings deals with a recent spike in gun violence, local and state leaders are searching for solutions.

The problem is complex. Not only is the area seeing more gun violence, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said, there also is not enough room at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.

"I think that we have a lot of people sitting in jail," Linder said. "They're just not getting through the system quick enough."

"The jail capacity problem is huge," said Judge Mary Jane Knisely, 13th Judicial District Court. "Because even in a regular sentence, or a traditional sentence is what would call it or treatment court sentence. If someone knows that they can never go to detention because there is no room for them, the stick is gone. The carrot might still be there, but the stick is gone."

Law enforcement says one reason there's no room in the jail is lack of public defenders.

"We're thrilled to be partnering with Yellowstone County to make sure we have the resources on the ground here," Gianforte said. "Both in the public defender's office and also in terms of investigations."

The governor earlier announced $2.3 million to try and combat the problem with $1.5 million going to public defenders, and $815,000 to hire more law enforcement officers.

"We hear about a rise in violent crime in all the communities across the state and that just really elevates the need for us to bring pragmatic solutions to the table to help make our community safer again," Gianforte said.

Not only is gun violence up in Billings, so is family member assault. The city saw cases rise 48% from 2019 to 2020 while strangulation charges rose 35%.

And that rising crime takes its toll on officers.

"You're absolutely right," Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said to Gianforte. "That continued exposure to violent crimes and things of that sort who take a toll so we need to pay attention to our officers well-being. You're just having some tragic things take place. A 15-year-old died last week from gun violence."

They say a multi-faceted problem and need of solutions and a problem certainly in the spotlight following three shootings in a matter of days.