By Ron VandenBoom
Crime prevention is the issue that most impacts the Democratic campaign of Mike McGrath for attorney general, he said, as he stumps the state discussing drugs and school violence.
McGrath is running against Republican candidate Jim Rice to be Montana's chief law enforcement officer.
McGrath, the county attorney for Lewis and Clark County for 18 years and assistant attorney general for six of those years, said one of the things that prompted him to run was a belief that Montana does a really god job solving crime, but falls short of the mark in the area of crime prevention.
"If we put emphasis on working with people when they have problems as kids," he said. "I think we can reduce our crime rates and reduce our prison populations."
McGrath said that it costs $20,000 per year to keep someone in prison.
"It's considerably cheaper to keep two kids in college than to keep two kids in prison," he said.
McGrath said he wasn't sure what the number one crime problem in Montana might be, but he reiterated his belief that overall crime rates will come down if more effort is paid to prevention.
"I am a big supporter of the D.A.R.E. program," he said.
The D.A.R.E. program concentrates on drug awareness and education primarily to fifth grade students with what McGrath calls a smattering of education in the middle schools and high schools. This, McGrath said, is too little.
"I think the more information we can provide young people about the problems they get into with drug abuse the better off we are," he said.
He said that expanding the program further into the middle and high schools would be expensive and could require additional manpower.
Schools are also a place McGrath said he would like to see a greater law enforcement effort through the use of what are known as S.R.O.s (School Resource Officers).
It's an experiment McGrath said is currently being used successfully in at least a few Montana communities.
"Again, this is an expensive program," McGrath said. "But in terms of crime prevention, I think we've really had an impact."
The officers eventually gain the trust of the kids, McGrath said, And it's amazing how much information they can obtain.
"We also feel they are able to reduce the level of violence in the schools and the level of drugs," he said.
McGrath said teachers also feel a lot safer as a result of the program.
McGrath said the program may not be for school districts, and school safety must be a local issue decided at the local level.
Drugs in schools is not a new issue in Montana, but the types of drugs found in Montana has changed over the years, he said.
Methamphetamine is currently one of the most popular drugs in Montana, McGrath said.
"One of the reasons we are seeing a rise in the number of meth labs being busted is because we are doing a better job of enforcement," McGrath said.
Much of the credit goes to the various drug task forces operating in Montana, McGrath said. These task forces have the ability to coordinate the efforts of different law enforcement agencies including the U.S. Border Patrol and law enforcement agencies on various Indian reservations.
McGrath said he is aware of the Montana/Canadian connection that passes back and forth between the Hi-Line and Canada with chemicals and a potent form of marijuana called B.C. Bud.
he end resultMcGrath said, is that he wants, if elected, to push to get Montana designated as a "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDA)."
He said the HIDA designation would bring what he calls "a pretty good boost in federal funds" to the state for enforcement and the cleanup of meth labs.
It would also ease some of the burden on the State Crime Lab which is currently experiencing a back log of cases, he said.