As crime rates rise, Montana city blames arriving convicts
AJ Etherington, The Billings Gazette
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — It was just about sunset on an autumn night in downtown Billings, and the staff of Jake’s restaurant was handling the dinner rush as 6 p.m. approached. The restaurant’s manager heard a disturbance near the bar and went to investigate. There he found the man he had fired just hours earlier wielding two steak knives and yelling “Give me all your money.”
The manager coaxed the former employee — a young felon on prison prerelease named in charges as Brandon Bird — into the alley behind the restaurant.
Once Bird was outside, the manager and another employee tried to run back into the kitchen and lock the door behind them. Bird followed them in, court records say, and began slashing and stabbing employees. One employee hurled plates at Bird to get him to retreat. It was chaos. A member of the kitchen staff ran into the dining area covered in blood, yelling about a stabbing. Wait staff hustled patrons out the door telling some to forget their bill and just go.
Bird continued confronting employees before ending up on the sidewalk out front where charges allege he tried to rob passersby. His rampage left four people wounded. It took an employee, along with an off-duty policeman who happened to be passing by, plus two other police officers to subdue Bird. Even after police stunned him with a Taser, Bird continued to resist.
Bird has been charged with four counts of felony assault with a weapon, two counts of felony burglary and misdemeanor resisting arrest. He could face decades behind bars if convicted.
The Billings Gazette reports that the aftermath has county officials talking about more than just a violent downtown stabbing spree. That Bird, who is from Missoula, was on prerelease at Alpha House, a prison halfway house in Billings, has illuminated a problem local leaders have been sore about for a long time: a disproportionate number of violent felons in Montana are being released to Billings.
Within a few days of the stabbings, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and Billings Mayor Bill Cole were addressing a group of state legislators. The pair were seeking the state’s help in addressing Billings having to take more than its fair share of parolees, and the impact those convicts are having on the city’s escalating crime rate.
“This is unlike anything that anybody in the state of Montana has seen,” Twito told the lawmakers. “And, so we need solutions from you that help us here (in Billings).”
CRIME TRENDING UPWARD
Billings leaders have complained for years that the city has become a “dumping ground” for many of the state’s paroled and prerelease convicts, some of whom have committed heinous crimes here.
One sympathetic local legislator suggested the state’s Department of Corrections just gives inmates “a bus ticket to Billings” when they’re released from prison or other DOC programs.
Keeping those people off the streets while they’re still under DOC supervision has become even more of a challenge as many of the state’s prisons and jails are operating at capacity. The jail in Yellowstone County has a stated capacity of 434 inmates. On Nov. 9, for example, the jail held 535 inmates, according to Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder.
“A hundred over,” Twito exclaimed to the state legislators. “So they’re double bunking, putting them on floors, putting them in space. It’s crazy.”
Of those incarcerated, 26% were arrested on probation or parole violations or were placed on DOC holds. In 2015, Yellowstone County voters shot down a mill levy designed to expand and update the jail, but as crime has grown the facility has failed to keep up.
Corrections’ data does show that Billings is home to a disproportionate number of DOC supervised inmates, when compared with other cities. Billings is also home to the second highest crime rate in the state and the largest population center. Crime has been trending skyward for the last decade and real solutions have been hard to find.
Speaking to lawmakers, Twito said the strain that crime levels have put on his office and the number of crimes committed by previously convicted or charged people has pushed his office and the county’s criminal justice system to the limit.
“We keep dealing with the same folks over and over and over and over again,” Twito said. “I will show you data that shows this and proves it.”
Of the 2,270 felony cases his office handled in 2020, at least 1,029 — nearly half — of the suspects had previously been charged with a felony in Yellowstone County. Of those, 390 had active cases pending against them, meaning they had committed crimes while awaiting trial for felony crimes they had previously committed. It is difficult to say how many of those repeat offenders were from other regions of the state.
Yellowstone County, which makes up about 15% of the state’s population, is home to 2,388 community supervised convicts as of Nov. 8. The number represents 24% of the total 9,925 community supervised people statewide. Community supervision includes parolees, probationers and conditional releases. And, that number doesn’t even include prerelease inmates like Bird, Twito said.
In contrast Missoula, the second-largest county in the state with 11% of the state’s population, houses 1,143 community supervised inmates, or 11.5% of the state’s community supervised population. Montana’s third most populous county, Gallatin, is also home to about 11% of the state’s population, but has just 512 convicts, about 5% of the state’s total community supervised population.
According to crime data reported in the Bozeman Police Department’s 2020 annual report, Billings’ overall crime rate was 126.4 per 1,000 residents last year. Missoula was close behind with 115.36 per 1,000 residents. Bozeman had the lowest crime rate of all the state’s major cities with 59.74 per 1,000 residents.
The highest crime rate belongs to Great Falls with 149.26 crimes committed for every 1,000 residents. The total supervised population in Great Falls is 1,006 or 10% of the total community release population. Cascade County is home to 7.5% of all Montanans.
AN EPIDEMIC OF VIOLENCE
Rising crime in Yellowstone County has been characterized as an epidemic of violence, and those rates show no sign of slowing. In 2020, historically high homicide investigations and gun violence set the stage this year for frequent shootings and stabbings. Crime in 2021 was on track to surpass 2020’s already unprecedented levels.
But Billings’ crime rate had been trending upward for the last decade even before a spike blamed partly on COVID-19 frustrations. From 2011 to 2019 violent crime grew from 444 a year to 933 violent crimes reported two years ago. In 2020, it got worse when violent crimes reported countywide reached 1,169.
Among the worst violent crimes this year was a shootout between two groups on June 24 in the alleyway behind Jake’s. Surveillance footage showed the two groups of four met before 18-year-old Brijen Fisher of Billings allegedly fired multiple rounds at point blank range killing 22-year-old Thaddeus Merritt of Chicago.
As Merritt fell he drew his own gun and shot Fisher in the leg and ankle, charges alleged. The other men scattered. Fisher crawled behind a car where he was found by police. Merritt died at the scene.
The two crimes — Fisher’s and Bird’s — are demonstrative of the escalating violent crime spilling into the city’s streets.
Combating rising crime has proven a daunting challenge for police and community leaders. One group of downtown private property owners found their own solution this summer when they chipped in to buy and then demolish the Lazy KT Motel, a frequent source of police calls. The effect was immediate. Police and emergency calls to the area dropped dramatically and property owners praised the results.
The rising crime rate was among the reasons a proposition was put to voters recently to increase police and public safety funding by $7.5 million. Voters in early November overwhelmingly supported the measure, which will increase the police force, municipal court capacity, firefighting capabilities and provide funding to substance use and mental health programs. Officials hope these measures will get some people off the streets and into treatment before they commit crimes.
METH AND OTHER DRUGS
Billings has a drug problem. On any given day in district court, people charged with criminal possession of dangerous drugs or distribution of drugs line up to appear before district judges.
In 2018, drug-related crimes peaked in Billings at 1,910 charges. In 2020, that number shrank to 1,224 but is still high when compared to 2010’s 886 total drug charges. Of the charges in 2020, 39 were for possession with intent to sell drugs, and 30 were for the sale of illicit drugs.
In 2020, the State Medical Examiner reported that Yellowstone County experienced more than twice as many drug overdose deaths — 25 — than any other city in the state. That number was 22% of all overdose deaths in Montana. Cascade County was second with 12 overdose deaths. Missoula County followed with 11 overdose deaths. The types of drugs responsible for the deaths was not available in the report, but methamphetamine is the most commonly used illicit drug in Montana.
MORE PROGRAMS, MORE FELONS
One reason for Billings’ overly large supervised population is the existing criminal justice infrastructure. Billings has two prerelease programs, a substance use disorder program, a sex offender program, 34 sober living facilities, drug courts, veterans’ courts and the largest number of probation and parole officers in the state — 35 as of 2019. This past year, an additional seven parole officers were allocated by the Legislature, and so far two have been hired.
In 2019, Missoula had 24 POs allocated and Great Falls had 16. Bozeman, with the state’s third-largest population, had nine POs allocated to its office.
With more services, more POs, and more crime, it comes as no surprise to local leaders why Billings is home to a disproportionate number of community supervised inmates.
On April 15, a 64-year-old Billings woman, Roxann Watson, was found strangled and beaten to death in her own home. Her daughter, 28-year-old Erika Miller, and the daughter’s boyfriend, Henry Porter, 22, named as suspects, were on the lam. The next day Miller and Porter died at Porter’s own hand after Gallatin County Sheriff’s deputies chased them into the woods near Yellowstone National Park.
Four days later, Shanna Booth, 32, was found dead in the basement of Miller’s home, stuffed in a closet. Her death has been attributed to Porter.
In July 2018, Porter was convicted of three counts of assault with a weapon, Twito recalled for lawmakers. Porter was committed to the DOC for 10 years with all of those years suspended. By the end of July 2018, he was charged with aggravated assault involving a gun, sexual assault and robbery. In August, the courts began a revocation of his suspended sentence.
In February of 2019, he was convicted of aggravated burglary and sentenced to 10 years in the custody of DOC with five years suspended. He was determined by DOC to have a history of violent behavior and he was labeled a high-risk offender. Regardless of that label, he was approved for prerelease in Billings in May of 2019. In August 2020, he was approved for conditional release and moved into the community.
In February of 2021, DOC was notified that Porter had been kicked out of his residence for repeated drug use. In March, Porter entered a sober living facility. On April 8, 2021, a woman called authorities to say her daughter was dating Porter and the two were hooked on meth and living at her house. That woman was Roxann Watson.
That same day, the sober living house notified DOC that Porter had left only four days after moving into the house on March 3, Twito stated. DOC had had zero contact with Porter after March 3. Seven days after her call to the authorities on April 8, Watson was found dead in her home.
Porter’s and Bird’s cases are extremes, and many convicts on community supervised release commit no further crimes and get on with their lives. According to DOC’s 2021 biennium report, in 2017, 38.57% of paroled or similarly released offenders reoffended, and 70% of all recidivism occurred in the first two years of release.
The most common violations were possession of a firearm; stalking, harassing or threatening a victim; absconding; failure to enroll in, or termination from, sexual or violent offender treatment programs; and termination from a prerelease or substance abuse disorder treatment program, DOC reported in their 2021 legislative biennium report.
In 2020, in response to COVID-19, the parole board approved the highest number of parole applications in the last four years when they paroled 1,504 of the 2,410 applications. In 2019, the board approved less than half as many at 664 of the total 1,028 applications.
Like many criminal justice agencies, the DOC has a workload and turnover problem. In a workforce report in 2019, probation and parole officers in Billings carried an average of 67 cases. The state’s highest caseload that year was nearby in Hardin, where one parole officer at the time supervised 182 inmates. The same report also highlighted that parole officers had an attrition rate of 25%.
Corrections is not the only criminal justice agency in Billings stretched thin by rising crime. Twito’s County Attorney’s office is overworked and turnover has hindered his ability to pursue cases as well. He said his prosecutors were juggling over 130 cases each. Clearances on cases can sometimes take more than a year.
“We are in the last quarter of 2021, I can tell you we are not going to increase our (felony) filings,” Twito said. “I don’t have enough prosecutors to get to all the cases that are coming on. We’re having to prioritize the violent offenses, the dangerous offenses, the burglaries and things that demand immediate attention.”
The same problem has plagued the Office of the Public Defender. Overburdened lawyers and high turnover have reduced the regional offices’ capability to the point a district judge had to hold OPD in contempt of court for failing to assign lawyers in a timely manner. OPD has since taken to assigning one lawyer to each judge to alleviate the problem, but that solution has caused some lawyers to carry extremely high caseloads, according to OPD’s own testimony in front of Judge Donald Harris earlier this year.
Solutions to both offices’ staffing shortages have come slowly. Even with funding to hire more lawyers, recruiting and retaining talent has been difficult. This is especially true for the high-demand and relatively low-paying jobs of public defenders and prosecutors when compared with private attorney pay and workload in the region.
With the passing of the public safety mill levy this fall, officials anticipate increased policing will exacerbate the caseload problem.
In response to the presentation, Billings’ City Administrator, Chris Kukulski, pushed those present to consider solutions and possible legislation going forward. He urged the lawmakers to form committees to look at the issues at play and form long-term plans.