- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Missoulian, Feb. 28, on the state’s new crime lab:

At about this time last year, Montana’s Legislature was grappling with whether to approve a second crime lab located in the eastern portion of the state. By the time the legislative session ended in April 2015, legislators had agreed to authorize spending for a satellite lab that would duplicate only a portion of the services provided by the State Crime Lab in Missoula. They did not, however, authorize any additional funding for it.

Then, just a few months later, both the state’s medical examiners resigned. For a few months last summer, Montana had to either ship bodies outside the state or bring in out-of-state examiners to conduct forensic autopsies.

Montana now counts three forensic pathologists: chief medical examiner Dr. Jaime Oeberst and Dr. Nikki Mourtzinos, both based in Missoula; and Dr. Robert Kurtzman, based in Billings. They are joined by two assistants, and the state medical examiner’s office has been completely restructured.

To say that the past year has been a busy one for the Montana Department of Justice’s forensic science division would be an understatement. In addition to overhauling and hiring for its medical examiner’s office, it has been working to secure appropriate space and staff for the new satellite lab in Billings. And it has been doing all this while pushing down average turnaround times despite an increasing caseload.

Lengthy case turnaround times were among the factors that helped convince the 2015 Legislature to approve a new clinic outside of Missoula to help with chemistry and toxicology testing. Legislators were also getting an earful from law enforcement officials in certain eastern counties who found it a hassle to transport evidence many miles across the state to Missoula.

Unfortunately, legislators neglected to provide any additional money to set up the new lab. The Legislature “authorized” the Department of Justice to lease space for up to $310,000, and $476,000 to fund the operating costs for two years, but that money is being spent out of the existing budget for the Justice Department.

While all involved had expected to have the lab up and running by the beginning of this year, the process of hashing out the details is taking a bit longer. It’s worth the additional wait to make sure it’s done right.

The state is entering into a groundbreaking contract with the Billings Clinic. It’s the first time Billings Clinic has leased space to the state, so it’s a learning opportunity as well as a golden one. The crime lab also saw some construction bids come in with higher costs than expected, and those financials must be lined up before remodeling can begin.

Equipment and staff are ready to go the moment the lab is ready, which should be no later than May. The lab’s focus will be on chemistry and toxicology, meaning drug and alcohol testing, for the most part.

Yellowstone County is undoubtedly among the eastern counties eagerly awaiting the lab’s opening. In January, it was waiting for toxicology reports in about a dozen death cases dating back to mid-September.

The crime lab in Missoula is able to resolve the majority of cases in far less time, according to Phil Kinsey, administrator for the forensic science division of the Department of Justice. However, in recent years it has seen an increase in cases, as well as an increase in the complexity of cases, that hampered its ability to provide some reports in a more timely manner. Problems with staff turnover didn’t help.

Thanks to the forensic science division’s busy past few months, the crime lab has been able to drive down average case turnaround time, and it anticipates further decreases as it makes use of new technology and streamlined systems.

The crime lab receives roughly 6,000 toxicology cases per year. In 2015, the number of cases received by the lab increased by 10 percent over the previous year, Kinsey says.

Before the beginning of the 2015 Legislative session, the crime lab was working against an average turnaround time of about eight months. Now that the lab is fully staffed - and state legislation has provided drug analogs that help reduce the complexity of many cases - the lab has an average turnaround time of less than three months.

And it is actively working toward a goal of 30 to 60 days.

Of course, it is doing so at a time when many Montana counties, including Missoula, are reporting an increase in meth- and heroin-related cases. Forensic biology cases - involving the testing of blood, semen, saliva or other biological evident - have increased by 50 percent, to 480 cases in 2015. And that, of course, is before Montana has determined what to do with the 1,413 untested rape kits currently being held in storage throughout the state.

Attorney General Tim Fox recently launched a task force to look into the untested kits, and the forensic science division, through Kinsey, is lending its information and expertise to help guide the task force. Following the formation of the task force, some officials have announced new policies requiring that all kits be sent to the crime lab. This, of course, would further increase the crime lab’s caseload.

Administrators are already planning to apply for grants that would allow some evidence to be processed by private facilities. The lab is also attempting to hire a grant-funded position to join its staff of about 40 FTEs.

However, the new satellite lab in Billings promises to take the largest share of the burden once it is fully operational. It is a timely development that will hopefully establish a model for Montana.

With sustained strong support from the Attorney General’s Office, we are confident the lab in Billings will prove its value in short order. It will need equally strong support - and funding - from the legislature if it is going to be successful in the long term.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/24AAsKY


Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Feb. 26, on campaign finance reporting:

Montana’s two candidates for governor this year are on track to collect more from out-of-state donors than in any gubernatorial election to date. That should come as no surprise. Money is playing a big and growing role in all our politics. And in a sparsely populated state like this one it is relatively cheap to saturate the media with political advertising and sway election results.

That makes it all the more important that we demand to know where the money is coming from, and that, as voters, we resist the influence of special interests when we go to the polls.

Together, the two announced candidates for governor, incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte, have collected more than $450,000 in out-of-state donations, and we’re still more than three months away from the primary election. By the time we get to the general election in November, that figure may double - at least. And that number will eclipse the $882,000 in outside money spent on the 2012 governor’s race, the most ever up until then.

The increase in out-of-state donations is just one troubling trend in campaign finance. Another is the rapid growth in spending by so-called super PACs. These groups masquerade as social advocacy groups but spend nearly all their money smearing candidates they oppose with attacks ads. And these groups are exempt from many political donor reporting requirements, allowing the wealthy to influence elections anonymously.

These trends are unlikely to change and they threaten to hijack the Montana electoral process.

State lawmakers need to continue to narrow the definition of political groups and toughen the donor reporting requirements. But the best defense against these threats is an informed electorate.

Most voters live busy lives and have little time to get informed in any depth on the issues at stake in the election process. And that leaves them vulnerable to the misleading or outright false claims made in today’s campaign tactics. Serious voters will resist this by heeding media reporting on who is giving what to whose campaigns. And when those donors do not have the best interests of Montanans at heart, voters need to cast their ballots accordingly.

This is a nonpartisan issue. Regardless of ideology, we should all be united in advocating for the most transparent campaign finance reporting requirements possible. And, as voters, we need to make the effort to find out who is behind the candidates before we go to the polls.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1OOClrW


Billings Gazette, March 1, on addressing Yellowstone County’s overcrowded jail:

Whenever Yellowstone County officials propose improvements to the overcrowded, 28-year-old jail in Billings, some folks inevitably say that using the mostly empty jail in Hardin is a better choice. That argument deserves a thoughtful answer, which has been given by Yellowstone County Finance Director Kevan Bryan.

About a month ago, operators of the Two Rivers Detention Facility, came to Billings and told Yellowstone County officials they could house inmates for $68 per day. The Two Rivers operators even promised to do all transportation between Billings and their private jail 50 miles away.

There are multiple reasons why that offer isn’t as good as it may sound.

At $68 a day, Yellowstone County would spend nearly $2.5 million a year to keep 100 inmates in Hardin. In doing so, it would send $2.5 million in county tax money out of the county and save only a small fraction of that in reduced food and supply costs at the Billings jail. The fixed costs of running the Billings jail wouldn’t change; the same staffing and utilities would be required. The Billings jail would still be double-bunking inmates; it would still fail to provide parity in housing female inmates; it would still have worn-out kitchen and laundry equipment, deteriorated plumbing and housing units. The jail’s current annual operating budget of $9 million would have to be increased to pay Two Rivers.

Insurance concerns

In the several weeks since Two Rivers came to Billings and talked with county officials here, they have not followed up with answers to information requested by Commission Chairman Bill Kennedy, Bryan said last week. They haven’t put the verbal offer into writing. The only document received from Two Rivers as of last week was a copy of a lengthy insurance policy for several properties operated by the private company. The policy raised more questions for Bryan, who noted multiple exemptions for medical services. Health care is a significant cost in running the Yellowstone County jail.

Insurance itself is a major concern. Yellowstone County is insured through the Montana Association of Counties, which only insures county jails - not private enterprises like Two Rivers. If Yellowstone County placed inmates at Hardin, the county would still be legally responsible for them, but would have no coverage under its own policy, Bryan said.

Yellowstone County has contracts with the U.S. Marshal’s Service, Montana Department of Corrections, Carbon and Stillwater counties to hold inmates for them. If Two Rivers is a good deal, why aren’t any of those entities contracting with it? The Gazette has previously reported - over the past decade - that various law enforcement agencies deemed Two Rivers has lacked the security and humane treatment features agencies require. Even Big Horn County isn’t contracting with Two Rivers.

Renovation alternative

A better alternative, according to Bryan and Sheriff Mike Linder, is careful investment in improvements to the Billings jail, a plan that Yellowstone County commissioners may place on the June 7 ballot. That plan would allow the county to borrow money for construction to be repaid over 20 years from existing tax levies with no levy increase required.

Bryan, a CPA who worked in the private sector for 25 years, said he is taking a businesslike approach to fixing the jail problems.

“We are looking at the fact that buying makes much more sense than ‘renting’ in this case,” he told commissioners on Feb. 9. “We could send 100 prisoners down the road and be out $10 million in four years, assuming no ‘rent’ increases from what, in large measure, is a ‘for profit’ landlord. That number will never be less. If we commit our resources to our own construction, then the expense after only a handful of years goes way down.”

“It’s a good deal for our taxpayers or we wouldn’t be putting it out there,” Bryan told The Gazette.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1QqGAMg

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