Montana DOJ seeks more agents and prosecutors as crime rate rises

State law enforcement leaders cited an increase in drug seizures and violent crimes to urge lawmakers Wednesday to invest in more agents, prosecutors and equipment going into the 2023 Montana state legislature.

Local lawmakers joined Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen in Billings, with Knudsen supporting Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget recommendations for the state’s Justice Department. An investment of $4 million and $3.1 million in the DOJ for fiscal years 2024 and 2025, respectively, would cover the cost of new DOJ personnel proposals in certain agencies, as well as squad cars and firearms.

“We worked with [the governor’s office] include in the executive budget recommendation to the legislature funds for 21 additional posts, primarily law enforcement officers, including Montana Highway Patrol officers, major crime investigators, human trafficking and narcotics agents,” said Knudsen at the MHP district office in Billings. “We’re also looking for three new prosecutors for the Justice Department so we make sure that when these 21 new law enforcement officers catch criminals, they go to jail and stay there.”

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Gianforte outlined his two-year budget of $14.4 billion in Helena on Dec. 7, Lee Newspapers previously reported. With a surplus of more than $2 billion, the governor’s budget has hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Montana State Hospital and the Department of Corrections.

The state’s Department of Justice is currently allocated nearly $299 million from 2024-2025, according to the Governor’s Office of Budget and Programming. New proposals for the DOJ include strengthening the department’s anti-trafficking efforts with the addition of four agents deployed to designated locations across the state to assist federal and local partners. A new prosecutor specifically focused on human trafficking was also a new proposal, with human trafficking cases initiated by the state DOJ increasing from 16 in 2021 to 64 so far this year.

The Justice Department’s Criminal Investigation Department assisted the FBI in several kidnapping and human trafficking cases earlier this year. In October, Angelo Corey Stackhouse was sentenced to life imprisonment by a federal court on drug trafficking and kidnapping charges. One of his victims was an underage girl who lived on the Crow Reservation.

To stem the flow of meth and fentanyl into Montana, the governor’s budget proposal calls for three narcotics agents and an additional district attorney. Agents from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program seized more than 155,000 dosage units of illicit fentanyl in Montana from early 2022 through September. Meth remains the most widely used drug seized by law enforcement in the state, with the Attorney General’s Office reporting £172 was seized in the same period. However, RMHITDA members seized more fentanyl this year than in all previous years combined.

“It’s really stunning,” said Knudsen.

Alongside near-record amounts of illegal drugs seized, MHP Col. Steve Lavin said cops on the state’s freeways seized a record-breaking amount of illegal firearms in 2022 for MHP.

Other recommendations in the governor’s budget for the DOJ include: three more DCI agents to deal with major crimes statewide, such as murders, rapes, and investigations involving the use of force involving law enforcement agencies, investigators for crimes involving vulnerable adults are involved, and cybercrimes against children; and more staff for the state’s Missing Murdered Tribal Peoples and Sex Assault Nurse Examiner programs.

The Montana state legislature begins January 2nd.

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