AG Knudsen asks Legislature for more resources to address public safety needs

HELENA — On Wednesday, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said that while he is a fiscal conservative, he is asking the Montana Legislature for a significant budget increase because his department needs more resources to keep up with public safety demands .

Knudsen opened the Montana Department of Justice’s presentation to a joint legislative budget subcommittee.

“Put simply, we cannot go on in Montana like it’s still 1995,” he told lawmakers.

The state executive has called for a large investment in the public safety budget over the next two years. The DOJ proposes a budget of $299 million for the 2024-2025 biennium — an increase of $38 million, or 14%, from the last allocation.

Knudsen said his department and other law enforcement agencies in the state are doing a good job but are under pressure.

“Our population is increasing, drug-related crime is increasing, violent crime is increasing rapidly in Montana, and it’s time we acknowledge that,” he told MTN on Wednesday. “We just need more resources.”

Much of the new funding would fund additional staff. Knudsen is requesting a number of new investigators for the DOJ’s Criminal Investigations Division — including four to respond to human trafficking cases, three to address the spike in drug cases, and three major crime investigators to assist local law enforcement in serious incidents .

The budget proposal would also support five new Montana Highway Patrol soldiers, along with a 6% pay increase for current soldiers.

Knudsen said he currently has only two investigators dealing with human trafficking cases, but the number of investigations has skyrocketed in recent years. He said the department is also under pressure from the growing number of drug cases, with meth and fentanyl among the most serious problems.

“There is no question that we are seeing an astronomical increase in drug trafficking into Montana,” he said. “It’s not just a function of ours to monitor better and find more of it.”

Knudsen’s budget request also includes $5 million for maintenance costs of an updated computer system for the Motor Vehicle Division, which he says will significantly reduce customer wait times. The department has already started gradually rolling out the system, and Knudsen said they’ve noticeably increased the number of customers served and reduced the number of people who don’t show up for an appointment.

The DOJ proposal is just part of a broader push for public safety in Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget. For example, members of this budget subcommittee also heard testimony this week from the Montana Department of Corrections about plans to invest approximately $200 million in improvements to the Montana State Penitentiary.

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