The Glasgow Courier - Serving Proudly As The Voice Of Valley County Since 1913

By Dylan Jensen
County Attorney 

A Lawyerly Letter


January 10, 2018

The new year is upon us, and in the grand tradition of ordering our lives by summaries and data, I resolved to write about 2017 in the Valley County Attorney’s Office to shed light on some of the work we accomplished and some of the changes that will affect criminal prosecutions in the year to come. In the interest of the reader engagement, I have decided to limit my comments to felony criminal cases because, while cases regarding traffic tickets can be very exciting (honestly), I suspect readers may find them less than enthralling.

By way of introduction, the Valley County Attorney’s office works with local law enforcement agencies to prosecute criminal offenses occurring within the County. We are responsible for handling all felony cases and any misdemeanor matters in which a defendant pleads not guilty when appearing in Justice or City Court. In addition, we are responsible for handling all cases involving youths in need of care, juvenile criminal proceedings, involuntary commitments, and the County’s civil work.

This past year was filled with change, as Judge Yvonne Laird completed her first full year presiding as District Court Judge. In addition, Sheriff Vernon Buerkle assumed his current office following a long tenure as our Undersheriff, and my office welcomed back Zach Lipscyz as Deputy County Attorney in the fall, following his previous work here as an intern.

In 2017, the Valley County Attorney’s office filed 52 new felony cases, up from the 37 filed during 2016. Of those cases, 40 either directly involved mood-altering substances or had a nexus to them. Specifically, of the new criminal cases in 2017: 21 involved methamphetamine; 23 involved marijuana or its derivatives; eight involved alcohol; three involved illegally possessed prescription drugs; and two involved heroin. Interestingly, 24 of the cases filed in 2017 involved what I would deem to be non-local defendants, a number somewhat attributable to the increased frequency of drug traffickers traveling along Highway 2 to sell contraband.

Beyond new filings, the Valley County Attorney’s office also secured 43 felony convictions and 27 misdemeanor convictions in District Court. Those convictions stemmed not only from 2017 cases (many of which are still pending), but also include some matters initiated in 2016 that carried over to the next year. Again, illegal substances were a major factor, with methamphetamine being the most prominent drug at issue. These conviction numbers also do not account for cases in which previously convicted defendants were re-sentenced following violations of their court conditions.

The number of filings in 2017 was notably high, especially in comparison with the average number of felony cases filed between the five preceding years, which was just under 38. During that period, the highest number of prosecutions in any given year was 44 cases during 2015. And while 52 felonies were filed this year, there were several more that could have been initiated but will instead be delayed until 2018. Delay in filing is, for our office and many others in Montana, often an an issues of resources. The 17th Judicial District is comprised of three counties (Valley, Phillips, and Blaine), with only one judge to oversee them all. As a result, the Court’s docket is very crowded, especially in light of Judge Laird’s duty to oversee all non-criminal cases in addition to her work with us. Because of this, we necessarily have to prosecute strategically to ensure law enforcement, attorneys, and the Court are able to address cases to an appropriate professional standard and that cases requiring immediate attention are addressed as soon as possible.

The developing trend of higher filings may well continue in the future, as statutory changes enacted following the most recent legislative session have significantly altered sentencing provisions. Of primary note is that the amendments have restrained the State’s flexibility to address criminal offenses across the board, most notably by shortening mandatory minimum sentences and limiting penalties for repeat felony offenders. Similarly, Legislature overhauled the statutes regulating the Department of Corrections, again curtailing circumstances in which probation and parole officers can pursue punitive responses for felony offenders who fail to comply with their supervisory conditions. Where supervising officers previously had relative flexibility (under the watchful eye of the Court) to sanction a convicted felon’s non-compliance, the changes mean full recidivism is now the practical standard for intervention. With lighter sentences and shortened terms of supervision, these changes have made it more difficult to be responsive to varying circumstances in criminal cases. And, because the legislative changes only took effect in July 2017, the full repercussions of the amendments are not yet fully realized. So, while it may not be entirely prudent to speculate about the consequences of the changes, many in law enforcement, myself included, are expecting the result to be an increased incidence of crime in Montana communities. All of which is to say, more hard work is in store for everyone in the community to ensure public safety is preserved.

But, on a lighter note and in celebration of the New Year, I would like to thank Sherry Wright, Sheila Malone, and Zach Lipscyz, who comprise the Valley County Attorney’s office. They continue to work extremely hard in ensuring all prosecutions in Valley County proceed as smoothly and efficiently as possible. I would also like to thank the various courts and their staffs, as well as our exemplary law enforcement officers, who continue to be dedicated public servants. Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to the members of our community who have served as witnesses and jurors this past year. Effective law enforcement requires effort by our entire community, and Valley County residents continue to be engaged and concerned with public safety. Your help is much appreciated.


Reader Comments


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2017