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Montana’s first domestic violence treatment court launches

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By Keila Szpaller DAILY MONTANAN

If a domestic violence case drags on, a victim might wonder if she’s going to be living in a home with someone she’s going to have to testify against in court. 

Already, domestic violence cases are difficult to prosecute, and delays create even more challenges, said Ryan Mickelson, deputy county attorney with Missoula County.

“Oftentimes, it leads to prosecutions crashing and burning,” Mickelson said.

To support victims and leverage “more fruitful interventions,” Missoula County announced a new program Tuesday to expedite domestic violence cases — and at a press conference, Justice of the Peace Alex Beal said the domestic violence treatment court is a first for the state.

“This is not a program that exists in Montana,” Beal said.

In part of a June 2021 series, the Daily Interlake reported a 26 percent increase in 2020 compared to 2011 in law enforcement responses across Montana to calls of strangulation or assault by family members or intimate partners.

However, a 2019 Montana Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commissions’ report to the Montana Legislature also noted intimate partner homicides were down nearly 50 percent statewide and in Native communities from the last biennium.

In Missoula, the initial goal of the new court is to “significantly reduce” the time between an arrest and resolution, according to the county. As currently designed, Beal said the program, which has been running for four months on a trial basis, isn’t costing the county any money.

To speed up cases, he said the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, victim witness advocates, and defense lawyers have been working in partnership to devise a system that’s “outcome neutral” and fair for all parties. He said the hope is that people who are affected, such as survivors, will have higher customer satisfaction, and he said the court will track related data.

Beal also said the county has been working on issues related to domestic violence for 17 years, and the new court would not be a silver bullet. He also said many people have not been fully served by the system, and as a judge, he has seen the cycle of violence with children and even grandchildren of people who have appeared before him.

“Domestic violence is rough,” Beal said. “It is a pervasive, multigenerational problem and has been going on forever. It is not going to solve itself in a day.”

At this point, he said the “treatment” portion of the court is a goal, but it’s something that would require money. He said the idea for the future is that people affected in cases would return to the court for check-ins and services.

“We don’t have the money presently to do something a whole lot bigger,” Beal said.

However, he said he’s seen other parts of Missoula County ramp up the ways they address domestic violence, such as changes to how law enforcement investigates, and a dedicated special victims unit in the County Attorney’s Office. He didn’t want the court to “be the weak link,” and he said Boise and Tucson shared valuable information about how to move forward with a court program — and in some cases lessons about how not to.

“The beauty of being a judge is sometimes you can just say, we’re going to do something differently,” Beal said.

At the press conference, Shantelle Gaynor, director of the Missoula County Community Justice Department, said partner family member assault is one of the five top reasons people are booked into the local jail. Plus, she said one in three women and one in nine men across the country report having experienced violence in an intimate partner relationship.

It affects people in every community, she said, such as in the LGBTQ community, Native American community, and people in middle class houses. And she said it affects children in the home.

“Domestic violence is a pervasive problem across the U.S.,” Gaynor said.

In addressing the problem, she said Missoula has been innovative. As examples, she pointed to a 24-hour crisis line, an emergency shelter for people fleeing violence, support groups and counseling, and specialized training for law enforcement and prosecutors to better serve victims and defendants.

“This court is the next step in that, so it’s another brick in our foundation to improve services and improve outcomes,” Gaynor said.

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