HELENA — Leaders with the Montana Department of Justice came into the 2023 state legislative session saying they were dealing with a significant rise in cases. Lawmakers responded by giving them more resources to address issues like illegal drugs, human trafficking, sexual assault and the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people.
“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.”
The department reports that drug trafficking task forces in Montana seized three times as much fentanyl in 2022 as they did in 2021. The numbers have risen dramatically over the last three years.
DOJ leaders backed House Bill 791, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, which would increase mandatory sentences for people who distribute large amounts of fentanyl or related drugs – to a minimum of two years in prison or a $50,000 fine.
“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 department also supported House Bill 112, sponsored by Rep. Jodee Etchart, R-Billings, and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte last month. The bill made a major overhaul to the state’s human trafficking laws, consolidating a variety of existing laws into four updated offenses – sex trafficking, aggravated sex trafficking, child sex trafficking and labor trafficking – and establishing mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious offenses.
Lockerby said these cases have been challenging for investigators to handle.
“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.”
Leaders are also continuing their work to improve the handling of sexual assault cases, with two bills signed into law last month. House Bill 640, sponsored by Rep. Naarah Hastings, R-Billings, requires law enforcement to hold sexual assault evidence kits for 75 years. House Bill 79, sponsored by Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, creates a sexual assault response network program within DOJ that will focus on improving access to nurse examiners trained in responding to 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.”
May 5 is Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day. Groups like the Helena Indian Alliance aimed to bring attention to the ongoing crisis by displaying red dresses – each representing an indigenous woman or girl who is missing or murdered.
Indigenous people make up about 6% of Montana’s population, but as of May 1, nearly a quarter of active missing persons cases in Montana are indigenous people. According to statistics from the Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office, 41 of the 170 currently active cases in the state involve indigenous people. Of those, 20 have been missing for more than a year, and 15 are under the age of 21.
The Legislature approved a pair of bills from Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning. House Bill 163 would extend the state missing persons task force through 2033 and provide a full-time coordinator through 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, already signed into law, creates a new program to provide training for community-based 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.”
Lockerby says his division will also receive several additional investigators to handle major cases like officer-involved shootings, as well as an agent to focus on computer forensics – working on identifying and extracting the data stored in 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.”