The Missoula County Attorney's Office has released a report on some of its activities during the past year, including insights and trends from the 1,687 cases its criminal division filed in 2015.
Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst said this is the first time a year-end report has been compiled by the office she now leads, and it is designed to increase transparency and provide the public with more detail on the types of cases her staff handles.
"Sometimes, people don't really understand that at any given time we have 1,600 open cases active," she said
The total number of criminal cases filed by the County Attorney's Office in 2015 is only a handful less than the previous year, although the number has fallen by more than 150 over the past four, largely due to fewer misdemeanor charges.
"Part of the decrease in misdemeanors is us backing off misdemeanor marijuana and putting those resources toward prosecuting felony drug charges," Pabst said.
More than any other issue, response to sexual violence defined Pabst's first year in office. Six months before she was sworn in, the Missoula County Attorney's Office reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve its attention to sexual assault cases with oversight by the state Attorney General's Office.
Part of Pabst's response to the agreement has been to form a special victims unit dedicated to working on crimes such as sexual and domestic violence. Pabst said such cases used to be handled by a single attorney at any given time, but four prosecutors and other staff members are now dedicated to them.
The SVU attorneys have gone through additional training and are given smaller caseloads to allow them to focus on sexual violence, which often can be more time-intensive to prosecute, Pabst said.
As part of the SVU, Jordan Kilby, a lawyer in the County Attorney's Office, is now co-located at the Missoula Police Department, working with investigators to examine possible cases and providing support to detectives even before those cases are referred to SVU prosecutors.
"That early communication improves cases and reduces the time it takes to investigate crimes," Pabst said.
Victims also go through a survey process asking how their case was treated by investigators and prosecutors, and Pabst said so far, they have had a 100 percent positive response.
In September, Attorney General Tim Fox issued a quarterly report about the agreement, praising Pabst's department for its advances.
"This report shows that our work together has resulted in a drastic decrease in the time it takes for the MCAO to make decisions and communicate with victims on sex assault cases referred for prosecution," he wrote.
Pabst said her office is working with Fox's to design curriculum to teach other communities in the state how to put together a special victims unit and re-examine policies about handling cases involving sexual violence.
The Missoula County Attorney's Office year-end report says it expectes completion of it agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in early 2016.
Of the cases the Missoula County Attorney's Office opened in 2015, 20 percent were drug crimes.
The number of methamphetamine cases was up 15 percent over the previous year, and up even more significantly – 137 percent – compared with two years ago. Pabst said the rate of meth cases coming through her office has been on a steady rise, and that an uptick in heroin has been seen recently as well.
"We're seeing a huge increase in the amount of meth used in Missoula," she said. "In 2007, our numbers went down to almost zero, a lot of that due to the Montana Meth Project and other efforts to address the issue."
Another change related to meth use, Pabst said, is that most charges involving the drug before 2007 dealt with resulted from local production.
"Now, almost all of it is being imported from out of the county," she said.
Drugs are also a contributing factor to other types of crime the County Attorney's Office handles.
"We see a direct correlation between meth and child abuse and neglect and serious domestic abuse cases," Pabst said.
Child abuse and neglect cases have made a sharp turn upward, from 110 filed in 2012 to 173 in 2015. Pabst said the trend is disturbing, and last year she increased the number of civil division attorneys handling such cases to three.
"It doesn't look like it's going to taper off," she said.
Partly as a result of looking back at cases from the past year, the County Attorney's Office recently changed how it tracks crime statistics, adding the ability to attach different attributes, or "tags," to files.
These tags mean prosecutors will not only be able to look at the number of burglary or criminal endangerment cases filed, for example, but also will now be able to see if children were present or if a certain type of drug was involved.
"The total number is just a snapshot. It's more important to look at how that breaks down," Pabst said.