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How a new law aims to help Montana victims of violence

Nichole Griffith
Posted at 5:55 PM, Jul 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-29 19:55:46-04

GREAT FALLS — New legislation went into effect on July 1st in Montana, aimed at giving victims of violence a little more peace of mind. House Bill 449, sponsored by Representative Frank Garner, revised laws about electronic monitoring as a condition of pre-trial release.

The 2021 Montana Legislature approved the bill requiring judges to order electronic monitoring as a condition of release for certain crimes like felony partner/family member assault, strangulation, felony stalking, or a felony violation of a protection order.

The exception is if a defendant can prove electronic monitoring isn't necessary for the victim or community's safety, or it's not needed to ensure the defendant complies with release conditions. Prior this bill. electronic monitoring was an option, not a requirement.

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House Bill 449 also expands victim notification of a defendant's GPS violations.

Thousands of Montanans are affected by violence every year, even though it’s an issue many either don’t want to address or are afraid to discuss publicly.

"Not a lot of people want to talk about the issue of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, however the problem is continuing to rise,” explained Nichole Griffith, the director of Victim Witness Assistance Services in Great Falls.

Victim Witness Assistance Services works with law enforcement and the courts to provide free and confidential services to crime victims in Cascade County. According to Griffith, the organization typically gets more than 30 cases a month, with most of those cases related to domestic violence.

Nichole Griffith

According to a Montana Department of Justice report, law enforcement responded to more than 4,000 cases of domestic violence in 2019, equating to an act of domestic violence reported every 2.5 hours on average.

It's a problem that's only gotten worse during the Covid-19 pandemic, both in Montana and across the nation.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in domestic violence related charges among other things,” said former District Court Judge Greg Pinski.

Pinski spent nearly eight years as a judge, and provided background information to the bill’s sponsor. According to Pinski, House Bill 449 was voted on eight times throughout Montana’s 2021 legislative session. He said there was only one opposition vote and that came during the first House committee vote. The vote later changed, and the bill passed the House and Senate unanimously, which Pinski called a rare legislative feat. He referred to the bill as a groundbreaking step forward in the law.

Greg Pinski

"This legislation is a recognition of the impacts these crimes have on victims,” Pinski said.

It’s a topic that’s close to his heart, not just from him time on the bench, but also from personal experience. “I’ve been a victim of stalking myself and so I know the psychology and the emotional impact that that can have on a victim. To always be uncertain, to have that trauma that’s associated with someone interfering with your life,” Pinski shared.

Great Falls resident Amanda Scott knows about domestic violence and GPS monitoring as well. Around seven years ago, her then 13-year-old daughter was assaulted. “Based on what happened with her, the cops were called, the individual was arrested, we went and we filed a restraining order, however she was still very nervous and afraid and worried. As a condition of his bond, they did do the GPS monitoring for him,” explained Scott.

Her situation made her a big advocate of GPS monitoring. “As a mom, you at that moment you want to be there every step of everyday for them to make sure they’re safe and protected and unfortunately I couldn’t do that. She had to go to school, I had to go to work, she had things that she had to do, and I had to know that she was safe. GPS provided me with that feeling of security so that even if I couldn’t be with her during that point in her day, that I knew that there was still something in place that would protect her when I couldn’t be there,” Scott said.

However, GPS monitoring has its flaws, as noted by Scott. “I’m able to talk about this and say how important it is and I’ll be the first one to tell you ours wasn’t the fairytale story,” Scott explained.

Amanda Scott

Scott said the person who assaulted her daughter eventually cut off the monitoring device and absconded. He was later caught by law enforcement in another state and was held accountable.

“The time frame that he was under the GPS monitoring was something that I don’t think we would’ve had the peace of mind without that and so I’m thankful for the time we did have that,” said Scott.

House Bill 449 now also expands victim notification to provide real time information about an offender's violation of bail conditions and more. According to Pinski, there was no statutory recognition of a victim’s right to receive notification of a defendant’s GPS violations prior to this new law.

“So for instance you program in a victim’s address, or their workplace or their school and if you have for instance a 1,500 square foot radius around there, if the offender came within that particular zone, then the victim can be notified as well as if the offender comes within the proximity of the phone itself,” explained Pinski.

Pinski, along with Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter see additional benefits of the new law for detention facilities and taxpayers.

“The other thing it could potentially do in the future moving forward is it reduce jail population and jail overcrowding for those pretrial offenders,” explained Sheriff Slaughter.

The burden of paying for GPS monitoring falls on the defendant. The new law states “if electronic monitoring is imposed, the court shall specify who shall provide the monitoring services and the terms under which the monitoring must be performed. On conviction, the court may require as a condition of the sentence that the defendant reimburse the providing agency for the costs of the electronic monitoring.”

“They all have a constitutional right to bail. Everybody who is charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty, there’s two sides to every story. However, we do have to ensure we maintain public safety during that transition, and I think this is a good step,” Sheriff Slaughter explained.

The biggest focus however of House Bill 449 is the added protective measures for victims.

“Whatever we can do to reduce that level of fear or concern for the victim’s safety is a great step forward,” Pinski said.

“It’s going to give people that peace of mind that other things can’t,” explained Scott.

A company called SCRAM Systems is one of the main producers of electronic monitoring and software that’s used by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The technology allows for alcohol monitoring, as well as GPS tracking and victim notification. According to SCRAM Systems spokesperson Shauna Rusovick, Scram currently has 1,166 active clients in Montana. Of those, 286 are specifically using SCRAM GPS, the other 880 and clients using alcohol monitoring, remote breath, or house arrest technology.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233.

Click here to see the Victim Witness Assistance Services report for January 1, 2021 through July 21, 2021 (PDF).