In Billings, drugs are the common denominator in criminal activity, police chief tells Tester

by Billings Gazette, Susan Olp

During a one-hour roundtable discussion organized by Sen. Jon Tester on Friday afternoon, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said these days, drugs inform much of the work in his department.

“The great majority of the work we all do, the common denomination is some sort of drug,” St. John said, whether it involves buying, selling or transporting drugs.

In many of the violent crimes committed in the Billings area, drugs is the common connection, he said. Methamphetamine enters the U.S. from Mexico on their way to Montana, where it gets a premium price.

“I believe the producers and distributors believe law enforcement is soft in Montana,” St. John said. “That’s not the case – we’re just spread awfully thin in such a big state.”

Tester met at the Yellowstone County Courthouse with community representatives from law enforcement and addiction treatment, a tribal organization and the state attorney general’s office to learn more about the issues facing them and what he can do to help.

“I wanted to let you guys have an opportunity to talk about the size and scope, what you’ve seen over the past three to four years that we should be paying attention to,” Tester said.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, center, and Lenette Kosovich from Rimrock Foundation and a group of other law enforcement and treatment professionals join U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for a roundtable on crime and drug addiction Friday at the Yellowstone County Courthouse.

On the plus side, Tester heard that agencies that deal with different sides of the drug problem are working together to find solutions to the problem. But getting people who have been arrested for drug use into treatment needs to happen faster than it does now, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito told Tester.

He told of a woman arrested a few days before on a drug offense who posted bond and was released from jail. She was arrested again Thursday night on another drug offense.

With the widespread drug use in the area – particularly highly addictive methamphetamine, which is readily available – the focus needs to be on helping people beat their habits.

“It takes too long from the time we have law enforcement interaction to the time we’re getting them into treatment to prevent recidivism,” Twito said.

He talked about a diversion program used by county attorneys across the state in which people arrested for simple drug offenses are funneled into treatment. Whether requiring drug assessments at the time of their initial court appearances or using some other strategy, something needs to be done quickly.

If a court case takes a year, the offender’s drug use doesn’t stop.

“We need to think about interrupting the demand so we can stop seeing these people over and over in the system,” Twito said.

Addiction and mental illness
Lenette Kosovich, CEO of Rimrock Foundation, pointed to the increasing number of people who are dealing with both addiction and mental illness. The number increased from 52 percent eight years ago to 78 percent now.

She said one program that has proved effective in Billings is the Motivated Addiction Alternative Program. The focus of the program is on serial inebriates in downtown Billings.

Under the program, a person cited for open container or alcohol-related trespass five times in a 60-day period can be sentenced to a jail term, but can at any point choose treatment instead.

“We’ve had other communities call us about that program,” Kosovich said.

But that only works, St. John added, if there is jail space available.

Sheriff Mike Linder said when alternatives can’t be found to treat addiction, people “end up in one place: jail.” And while the number of bookings in the Yellowstone County jail have decreased since 2012, the jail population hasn’t changed over time, and overcrowding continues.

“Treatment or breaking the cycle of addiction is probably going to be the only way to deal with that – that or build more jail space,” Linder said.

Shift to meth
MarCee Neary, program director at the Billings Crisis Center, said her staff is seeing a change in the drug preference among the homeless population that seeks the center’s services. Some who used to prefer marijuana now turn to meth.

“Our clients are telling us it’s cheaper to buy meth in larger quantities than marijuana,” she said. “(Drug dealers) are targeting the vulnerable populations because they’re easy prey.”