BISMARCK, N.D. – The U.S. Justice Department launched a $3 million program Friday to help prosecute crimes against women and provide services for victims in the Bakken oil-producing region of western North Dakota and eastern Montana.
The region’s oil boom has brought an “exploding population that has brought all kinds of challenges to victims, responders and counselors,” said Associate Attorney General Tony West, who met Friday with tribal leaders and law enforcement officials in North Dakota. “What you’ve got is an explosion of need.”
The initiative by the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women will use $2.1 million over the next three years to provide services, counselors and shelters for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking, as well aid local law enforcement responding to the crimes.
West said $900,000 will be used over the next three years to fund a prosecutor on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana and another on the Fort Berthold Reservation in the heart of North Dakota’s oil patch.
Tribal officials from the reservations will hire the special prosecutors who will handle cases in tribal and federal courts, West said.
The special prosecutors also can handle other criminal cases such as those that are drug related but “the real focus here are crimes against women,” said West, citing a growing caseload of domestic violence and sexual assault in the region. “That will be the priority.”
Law enforcement and tribal leaders have called for more federal help in dealing with drugs and crime in the region that’s seen an influx of thousands of oilfield workers in recent years. U.S. Attorneys Michael Cotter of Montana and Timothy Purdon of North Dakota have advocated for more help in the Bakken.
Purdon said services for domestic violence and sexual assault especially have not grown “commensurate with the increased population in the region.”
The pleas have been heard at the “very highest level of government,” West said. “The White House has been engaged.”
Justice Department officials have toured the region over the past year, meeting with tribal officials, law enforcement, counselors and shelter officials.
West said the lack of services has meant victims of sexual assault and domestic violence often have been “turned away and women have had to return to circumstances that brought them to the shelter in the first place.”