After Marsy’s Law, Missoula County Attorney looks to keep victim coordinators

The Missoula County Attorney’s Office will keep two positions created to comply with Marsy’s Law, a victim’s rights bill passed by voters but later struck down by the Montana Supreme Court over questions of constitutionality.

Jason Marks, the chief deputy Missoula County attorney, said the two victim witness coordinators were added in January and March to comply with changes expected under the law, which voters approved in a controversial effort to give more rights to the victims of crime.

“We actually hired them earlier this year before it (Marsy’s Law) went into effect,” Marks told Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday. “We revamped all of our policies and procedures to comply with Marsy’s Law so we’d be compliant before it was to go into effect. We have workflow built around it.”

In November, the Montana Supreme Court voided Marsy’s Law, saying it was unconstitutional because it violated a portion of the state Constitution. That left the County Attorney’s Office facing the possibility of eliminating the two positions for the duration of 2017, then seeking to refill them next year under new budgeting scenarios – and a possible rewriting of Marsy’s Law.

Even without the law in place, Marks said the two positions have enabled the office to improve its communication with all victims and a do a better job of collecting information regarding restitution to present to courts at sentencing.

“Our office would like to continue to provide the highest level of services to all victims of violent crimes and victims of other crimes that absolutely need the service,” Marks said, adding that Yellowstone County has eight victim witness coordinators.

Missoula County hired its first victim witness coordinator in 2014 as part of its resolution with the U.S. Department of Justice over the handling of sexual assault cases.

The position sought to improve the notification process, as well as support and referral services for victims, and to provide them with information not available at other local offices.

With three coordinators now on board, Marks said his office is looking to move one to the Child Abuse and Neglect Division. The county has seen its number of child abuse and neglect filings increase from just 44 in 2010 to 191 last year.

Marks said the attorneys working the unit are overwhelmed and need the help.

“Maintaining our staffing level, even without Marsy’s Law, is in the best interest of crime victims and the children who are the subjects of our child abuse and neglect cases,” Marks said. “We understand the fiscal constraints the county faces, but we feel the work done by these positions will be a good use of county resources.”

While commissioners took no official action on the request, they did express verbal support, saying it was better not to eliminate the positions only to bring them back in the spring when budgeting for the next fiscal year begins.

Other changes at the state level may also impact the County Attorney’s Office, including the state’s elimination of fees paid to hire expert witnesses at criminal trials.

That loss of funding resulted from budget cuts enacted by the Legislature last year. Marks said his office has been forced to cover the expense, estimated at roughly $15,000 a year. Other cuts to the county could also impact child and family services.

Commissioners are asking department heads to identify other impacts to their office resulting from the legislative cuts, as well as those enacted during the special session.

“We hope, after the first of the year, to meet with our delegation to talk about potential impacts of the state budget going forward,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss.