HELENA — Monday at the Law and Justice Center in Helena, law enforcement, judicial and community leaders told Gov. Greg Gianforte the justice system is under strain, and addiction and behavioral health are key to understanding the problem.
Gianforte held a public safety roundtable, his eighth this year in cities around Montana.
“My goal today is to listen,” he said. “I want to hear from you about what’s working, what’s not working.”
Gianforte said the details may vary from community to community, but the themes he’s hearing are the same across the state.
“Just talking about it is not a solution; we have to work together across the various branches of government and the private sector,” he said.
Those in attendance urged the state to provide additional support for their efforts to respond to crime and to address the factors behind it.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said his office has seen a large increase in cases in recent years. He said the vast majority are linked with alcohol, drug use, mental health issues or some combination of those factors.
“You can make arrests, take them to jail, have sentences, but what really were the causal factors?” he said. “If you want to make a change, that’s where you need to look.”
Dutton said he hopes to see additional state support for treatment programs. He said community-based assistance would be especially valuable.
Mike McMahon, a judge in the First Judicial District Court in Helena, echoed Dutton’s concerns. He said early intervention is key to get people back on the right track.
McMahon highlighted the success they have had locally with the Family Treatment Court, which handles cases where people with substance use and behavioral health disorders have become involved with Child and Family Services. He said they started with 12 to 18 participants, but are now down to just three, with a final graduating class set for the end of this month. He credited efforts by the state to get those families assistance.
McMahon said the First District judges have put an exploratory committee together, to see if the community could support a new “behavioral health court.” It could bring in local providers early, providing support on everything from criminal cases to dependent neglect to involuntary commitments. He said the judges will have a meeting on the proposal this week.
“If we can intervene early, just like the Department of Public Health and Human Services has done for families, we’re going to try it that way and see if it works,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to pass, I don’t know if the judges will approve it, I don’t know if the Office of Court Administrator will approve it, but all we can do is try.”
Another topic of discussion Monday was housing. Leaders said they’ve seen how unstable housing can exacerbate the other issues they have seen.
In his budget proposal for the next two years, Gianforte has called for investment both in law enforcement and in behavioral health. His plan would pay for additional Montana Highway Patrol troopers and state prosecutors and for improvements at the Montana State Prison, and it would direct $300 million to the behavioral health system – including for needed work at the Montana State Hospital – and provide funding for drug treatment courts.
“For nonviolent crime, the focus really has to be on treatment, to help people get healthy,” Gianforte said.
Everyone in attendance Monday agreed, whatever comes next, it will take all groups working together to make it a success.
“Partnerships are key, and that’s why we’re around the table today,” said Gianforte.
“Helena is a tremendous community for all the providers we have available to these folks,” McMahon said. “It is a team approach, and that’s what we do with the community.”