Helena, Montana – The Montana Department of Justice’s top officials claimed they were facing a large increase in cases going into the state legislature’s 2023 session. To handle concerns like illegal drugs, human trafficking, sexual assault, and the continuous catastrophe of missing and murdered indigenous people, lawmakers responded by providing them with greater resources.
“I think Montana cares about public safety,” said Bryan Lockerby, administrator of DOJ’s Division of Criminal Investigation. “Citizens want to be protected, and now we have some tools to be able to do that.”
Drug trafficking task groups in Montana reportedly confiscated three times as much fentanyl in 2022 than they did in 2021, according to the agency. Over the past three years, there has been a sharp increase in the numbers.
House Bill 791, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, would make distributing significant amounts of fentanyl or comparable substances punishable by a minimum of two years in jail or a $50,000 fine. DOJ leaders supported this legislation.
“The reality is we’re not targeting people who have a substance abuse problem; that’s not our goal,” Lockerby said. “We’re trying to get those people that are dealing drugs that are killing our citizens. We have this massive amount of overdoses, this flood of fentanyl – and now to have some teeth with some of these statutes, it gives us some leverage to work these cases and put the right people in jail as well.”
The agency also backed House Bill 112, which was introduced by Rep. Jodee Etchart, a Republican from Billings, and was approved by the governor last month. The legislation substantially revised the state’s anti-human trafficking laws, reclassifying a number of outdated offenses as sex, aggravated sex, child sex, and labor trafficking, and establishing mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious offenses.
These situations, according to Lockerby, have proved difficult for investigators to manage.
“It takes time to identify the suspects because they move around a lot – it’s a very migratory type of an offense,” he said. “So not only at the line level does it take a lot of work to investigate, it’s very difficult to prosecute as well. Some of the new statutes that went through are really going to assist us with that.”
With the enactment of two measures last month, leaders are also continuing their efforts to enhance the processing of sexual assault cases. Rep. Naarah Hastings, R-Billings, is the author of House Bill 640, which mandates that law enforcement keep sexual assault evidence kits for 75 years. Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, sponsored House Bill 79, which establishes a sexual assault response network program inside DOJ with a focus on expanding access to nurse examiners skilled in handling these cases.
“If you can imagine what it’s like for a survivor of something as horrific as that to have to wait to be processed to drive 3 hours to Billings or something, now we can do this remotely,” Lockerby said. “We have a coordinator to set up that kind of a program.”
Indigenous Missing and Murdered Persons Awareness Day is May 5. By exhibiting red gowns, each of which represented an indigenous woman or child who was either missing or murdered, organizations like the Helena Indian Alliance sought to draw attention to the ongoing situation.
Although they make up around 6% of the population of Montana, as of May 1 almost 25% of the state’s active missing persons investigations involve indigenous people. 41 of the 170 cases that are now pending in the state include indigenous people, according to data provided by the office of Attorney General Austin Knudsen. 15 of them are under the age of 21, and 20 of them have been missing for more than a year.
Two legislation introduced by Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, were approved by the legislature. The state missing persons task force would be extended under House Bill 163 until 2033 and a full-time coordinator would be appointed by the DOJ.
“The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force has been instrumental in helping provide some guidance in how we can strengthen laws, and also kind of close some gaps,” said Lockerby. “We’ve been much more public about being able to provide information on missing persons.”
House Bill 18, which has already been enacted into law, establishes a new program to educate local missing person response teams.
“Helping with search parties, so that they can have some structure and organization and planning,” Lockerby said. “Rather than people just going out on their own trying to do the right thing, now we can have a better plan.”
According to Lockerby, his section will also get a number of more investigators to tackle complicated situations like officer-involved shootings and an agent to specialize in computer forensics, which involves finding and extracting data from electronic devices.
“I think the message is clear, and it’s something that our attorney general said: We have your back,” Lockerby said. “And I think that message came not only from our attorney general, it came from the Legislature, it came from the governor, and it trickles down to our community. I think this is a very positive thing.”