Missoula County Attorney Addresses Improved Approach to Prosecuting Sexual Assaults [YouTube]
The issue of sexual assaults and how they are prosecuted has been the focus of intense scrutiny over the past two and a half years in Missoula.
In the wake of agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the Missoula County Attorney's office, now headed by KIrsten Pabst, has instituted new techniques and procedures to improve first, the way that sexual assault victims are treated, and second, how the cases are prosecuted.
In her office on Monday, Pabst addressed some of the most recent changes to her office.
"Particularly over the past six months, we've been working really hard to make this process better for victims," Pabst said. "We've moved from a process-oriented system to a victim-centered approach. We try to keep in mind how all the decisions that we make and all the court hearings that we go through, how every little thing is going to affect the victim. We've hired the victim-witness coordinator, which has been a huge asset, so that's a huge priority for us."
Pabst said many of the changes are producing results that are less tangible than others,
"For example, our prosecutors have much lower case loads and are being able to spend more time on their cases, being able to spend more time with victims, and victims feeling like they've been heard more than in the past," she said. "We've also increased training, and so we have prosecutors who are better at these kinds of cases. We've also increased the number of prosecutors on these cases from one to four, plus a victim-witness coordinator. In our Special Victims Unit we've dramatically increased our communications with our partners in the community. We have daily meeting with the police department and weekly meetings with our SVU. As far as the more tangible, measurable statistics, it's still too early to tell."
Pabst quoted statistics that Missoula rates of sexual assaults over a five-year period are actually lower than several other larger Montana cities.
"Our prosecution rates have traditionally been pretty good, but we can always do better," Pabst said. "Can we guarantee that we're going to win every case at trial? No, but we can guarantee that we will pay attention to the victim's needs 100 percent of the time and that we'll base our decisions on facts in evidence 100 percent of the time."
On Friday, 20 year-old Timothy Schwartz of Bozeman was found not guilty of raping a University of Montana student in her dorm room. In 2013, former UM quarterback Jordan Johnson was also acquitted of rape. Also in 2013, Beau Donaldson was sentenced to 30 years in prison with 20 years suspended after confessing to raping a childhood friend. He was denied parole on Friday.