DOJ Reaches Agreement with County Attorney to Resolve Investigat - KULR-8 Television, Billings, MT

DOJ Reaches Agreement with County Attorney to Resolve Investigation

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MISSOULA - A two-year battle between the Missoula County Attorney and the U.S. Department of Justice comes to a close.

In May of 2012, the DOJ investigation revealed alleged gender bias and discrimination in the prosecution of sexual assaults by the County Attorney's Office.

At a press conference on Tuesday, the DOJ, County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg and Attorney General Tim Fox announced a settlement on those findings.

The settlement states the Attorney General's Office will now oversee the County Attorney Office's handling of sexual assault cases.

It's a compromise, and Van Valkenburg maintains his office still would have won if the matter had gone to federal court.

Van Valkenburg said, "Men and women at the Missoula County Attorney's Office have been and will continue to be committed to seeking justice and protecting victims."

The County Attorney's Office will develop new training for prosecutors, improve communication with law enforcement and victims, and improve data tracking through the criminal justice system.

Michael Cotter, a U.S. Attorney, said, "The County Attorney's Office will act promptly, adequately and fairly to seek justice for victims of sexual assault."

Attorney General Tim Fox will oversee the implementation of the new requirements, as he has oversight authority over all Montana County Attorneys.

"We've also committed to asking legislature for additional funds for expert witnesses in sexual assault cases," he said.

Missoula County Commissioners approved the use of $210,000 for one year to fund a technical advisor and victim coordinator and to hire expert witnesses. Technical director Anne Munch will provide training and report back to the Attorney General on the County Attorney Office's progress.

"To ensure that survivors of sexual assault in Missoula are treated with dignity and respect and have the full protection of the criminal justice system," Jocelyn Samuels, of DOJ Civil Rights Division said.

As part of the agreement, Van Valkenburg will also dismiss the pending declaratory judgment action, while the DOJ agrees not to file any legal action against the County Attorney's Office.

Van Valkenburg says he supports today's agreement, but that support is primarily out of his respect for the Attorney General.

"I am confident that the DOJ's utterly unfair claims of authority and discrimination would not have succeeded in court," he said.

Attorney General Tim Fox and Van Valkenburg have committed to having improved policies in place within 90 days after signing a contract with the new technical director.

The settlement resolves the last component of the Department of Justice's investigation into Missoula's response to sexual assault.

The initial investigation was launched in May of 2012, after women made complaints about the handling of sexual assault cases.

In May of 2013, the DOJ entered into agreements with the University of Montana and UM's Office of Public Safety, which required the organizations to improve their response to reports of sexual assault.

One week later, the Missoula Police Department also entered an agreement with the DOJ.

In February of this year, federal investigators released their letter of findings into the county attorney's office.

Missoula organizations have taken big steps in improving the city and county's response to reports of rape in recent months.

A new Missoula Police unit dedicated to violent crime cases recently moved into new office space near the station. It houses six detectives-- all dedicated to tackling child abuse, sexual assault, and other violent crime cases.

MPD also added two interview rooms with soft chairs and lighting to make victims feel more comfortable.

Police, the university, 911 dispatchers, and St. Patrick Hospital are also auditing the city's criminal justice system. The audit team will release a report with recommendations to participating agencies and to the public in mid-December.

The Department of Justice has entered into a comprehensive agreement with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, the County of Missoula and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox to resolve the DOJ’s investigation of the County Attorney’s Office’s response to reports of sexual assault.

The agreement requires the County Attorney’s Office to:
  • Develop and implement effective sexual assault policies and training for prosecutors;
  • Improve treatment of individuals who report sexual assault, including in-person interviews and better communication while a matter is pending;
  • Use prosecution techniques that have been shown to result in better sexual assault investigations and that have been adopted in other prosecutor’s offices across the country;
  • Improve communication and coordination with other Missoula stakeholders regarding sexual assault response; and
  • Improve tracking and sharing of data regarding sexual assault prosecutions, so that the County Attorney’s Office has a broader picture of what it is doing and can better identify any general concerns or necessary improvements.
You can find a full transcript of acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Jocelyn Samuels speech at today's press conference here. 

The DOJ's press release on the agreement can be found here.

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