BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The state of Montana, Yellowstone County and Billings are investing more than $4 million over the next three years to fight and prosecute crimes in the Billings area, the governor's office announced.
The state is using $2.3 million in pandemic relief money to improve public safety and the economy in Yellowstone County, Gov. Greg Gianforte said Tuesday. Businesses owners have reported the crime rate hurts their bottom line.
The city of Billings and Yellowstone County are also investing $1 million each in the effort, The Billings Gazette reported.
A commission created to recommend spending of some of the state's pandemic relief money voted to invest $1.5 million in the Office of State Public Defender to increase staff in Yellowstone County and another $815,000 to hire agents in the Department of Justice's Division of Criminal Investigation to better address drug and violent crimes in the county.
County Attorney Scott Twito and city administrator Chris Kukulski recently raised concerns on the area's crime levels and the disproportionate number of Department of Corrections inmates being supervised in the county. Billings has two prerelease programs, a substance use disorder program, a sex offender program, 34 sober living facilities, drug courts, veterans courts and the largest number of probation and parole officers in the state, the Gazette has reported.
From June 2021 through August 2021, violent crime reported to Billings police increased by 40% over the previous year, officials said. Part of the issue was court backlogs resulting in more defendants being released on pretrial supervision.
Voters in early November approved increasing police and public safety funding by $7.5 million.
Recently, District Court Judge Donald Harris held the public defender's office in contempt of court for failing to assign attorneys to cases in a timely manner. A hearing on the matter revealed recruiting and retention issues and low pay for state public defenders.