The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office doubled its felony caseload between 2010 and 2015, going from 677 cases to 1,237. Felony filings numbered 1,324 in 2016 and are on pace in 2017 to outstrip last year.
A survey of felony cases filed in 2016 indicates that 426 were related to methamphetamine, according to County Attorney Scott Twito.
“It’s a very difficult problem in our community and it bleeds into the child abuse and neglect cases,” Twito said at a recent County Commission meeting.
Yellowstone County District Court has seen an explosion in the number of child abuse and neglect cases. The number of Yellowstone County children entering the foster care system has quadrupled from 124 in 2010. In 2016, the county attorney’s office filed for the protection of 531 children. Filings this year are running higher. The majority of child abuse and neglect cases statewide involve parental abuse of alcohol or other drugs. The incidence of parental substance abuse is even higher in Yellowstone County with meth being the primary drug involved.
The county attorney’s staff, and other court officials have stepped up to these challenges by working harder, handling more cases and collaborating to be more effective and efficient, such as:
- Establishing drug treatment courts to address the root cause of recidivism, but these courts have limited capacity.
- Rearranging arraignment schedules to save time.
- Adopting and improving electronic records to streamline court paperwork.
- Justice of the Peace David Carter spearheaded a screening program to provide better information about who should and shouldn’t be released pending trial.
- Twito launched an early intervention program to get first-time felony drug offenders into treatment quickly with the offer of having their records cleared — if they stay drug free.
All those ideas have helped manage burgeoning demands on Yellowstone County courts, but the county’s resources are maxed out.
Yellowstone County voters approved a levy to fund the county attorney’s office 17 years ago. That levy no longer covers the costs of the much larger demands on the county attorney. In recent years, the County Commission has had to transfer more and more general fund money to cover staff increases sorely needed in the overloaded county attorney’s office. Those transfers aren’t sustainable.