Prison is often the last resort when offenders are sentenced
Editor's note: Reporter T.J. Pyette wrote a series of articles on the Tri-Agency Task Force before she left the Havre Daily News to become a Hill County sheriff's deputy. This is the third of three parts.
So what happens to the "bad guys" after they've been caught in the Tri-Agency Task Force web?
The answer lies in a criminal justice network of independent pieces that collectively provide legal consequences to drug offenders.
Jerry Nystrom, team leader of the TATF, said, "People always want to know why an offender is back out on the street."
Hill County Attorney Dave Rice said there's a number of reasons why offenders convicted on drug charges do not go to prison.
"The sentencing statutes for the state of Montana are responsible for the sentences that they get," Rice said.
State law says that sentencing must provide alternatives to prison for the punishment of nonviolent felony offenders who do not have serious criminal records, he said.
Nystrom said that because of the state sentencing statutes, the task force often tries to gather enough evidence and information on suspects to bring federal charges against them. Offenders are much more likely to serve time in the federal system.
"The federal system has laws that our state system doesn't," Nystrom said. "The federal laws also provide different sentencing guidelines."
If convicted under federal law, a perpetrator will do mandatory prison time. Also, there is no opportunity for parole, and probation begins after jail time has been served, he added.
Federal charges are dependent upon the amount of drugs seized, the location of the offense, and violation of certain federal laws that aren't echoed in Montana statutes, like being a drug addict in possession of a firearm.
Another aid to federal prosecution efforts is that historical facts can also be used in federal court, Nystrom said, but they aren't allowed in Montana's state District Court proceedings.
In the state system, "It takes a lot to send a nonviolent offender to prison," Rice said. "It takes serious repeat offenses, or the presence of drugs like heroin, which we just don't see very often."
Rice said the majority of drug cases currently being prosecuted in Hill County involve the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine.
"Meth is the predominant drug in this area right now, but it changes. Marijuana is always out there, as well as cocaine and some others."
Rice said one of the types of cases he pushes hard are those involving the manufacture of methamphetamine. He said he tries to make sure owners of meth labs serve some jail time because of the serious effects the labs could have in the community.
"They are not only selling dope, but they are creating a volatile situation in a neighborhood," Rice added.
Rice said he has an average of five or six felony drug cases pending at a time. "They tend to come in groups because of the way the task force works," he added.
Rice credits the task force with helping increase Hill County's felony filings by as much as 25 percent since its establishment in the late 1980s.
State probation and parole officer Jerry Smith credits the task force for more than doubling his office's caseload between 1989 and 1993.
"When I came here in 1989, we had about 72 offenders on our caseload. The task force really got going in 1990 or so, and our caseload was up to about 155 in 1993," Smith said.
In addition to supervising those convicted of drug charges, Smith said, his office also plays a role in the sentencing of drug offenders by conducting presentence investigations that serve as independent safeguards when plea bargains are being considered.
Rice said his office does not influence the presentence investigations conducted by probation and parole officers. Their sentencing recommendations are based on the outcome of their investigation and what they determine to be appropriate, based on sentencing guidelines, for each individual offender.
Smith said that in keeping with Montana statutes, a variety of factors are considered during a presentence investigation.
"We look at criminal history, the circumstances of the offense, the harm to the victim, and in drug cases, we try to determine the level of addiction," Smith said.
Presentence investigations usually take place after an offender has signed a plea bargain, but many factors are considered before an offender is offered the opportunity to sign an agreement, said Rice.
Rice said prosecutors look at the sentencing guidelines for the particular offense, and take into consideration the sentencing precedents set by the District Court judge.
"Then we look at the criminal record," said Rice, "and we try to determine what is appropriate for each offender based on his or her history."
An offender's record may influence whether Rice will recommend a deferred or suspended sentence.
"A deferred sentence will be erased from a person's record if they remain law-abiding during the term of their sentence," Rice said. "We will typically suggest deferred sentences for first-time offenders or younger people, to give them an opportunity to straighten out their lives."
If an individual violates the law or the conditions of their sentence during the term of their deferred sentence, the original sentence can be imposed.
"A deferred sentence still gives (the state) enough rope to hang that individual if they choose to continue along the same course," Rice added.
Rice said a suspended sentence will remain on an offender's record and provide a basis for stacking charges - repeat offenses that may lead to actual jail time.
After reviewing the plea agreement and the presentence investigation report, the judge hands down a sentence. State District Judge John Warner is quick to point out he doesn't have to follow the recommendations.
"The court is not bound by the sentencing recommendations of a plea agreement," Warner said. He advises offenders when they enter into a plea agreement that the court still has the latitude of the law in sentencing.
Rice estimated that nine times out of 10 Warner will go with the recommendation, but occasionally he may deviate based on his knowledge and opinion of the individual and the case.
Rice said the prosecutors' office and the drug task force don't make deals with offenders and no offers are made up front to defendants in exchange for their cooperation.
"We may have a defendant who says they can help the task force," said Rice. "We tell them to go ahead, and we will let the judge know what they have done, after they've followed through."
Defendants who offer to become informants are asked to sign a letter of cooperation that outlines the expectations of the task force and the prosecutor, and defines the rules the defendant will be expected to follow.
Rice said the task force will make the final decision about whether it will work with a defendant to try to make a case against another suspect.
"Sometimes we know it's an individual who will not follow the guidelines and is not really going to be a help to us, and in that case, we won't work with them," said Nystrom.
"But we have to be able to build enough evidence and show that it's an ongoing enterprise, not just a one-time deal," Nystrom said. "So usually it does help to use informants who are already involved."
Nystrom added that since the task force covers a number of counties, procedures vary. "It depends on the county attorney in each county."
Nystrom admits he gets frustrated with the amount of drug traffic he sees and the minimal state penalties, but still thinks the task force is effective in carrying out its mission of eradicating the use and sale of dangerous drugs.
"Without us, it would just be runaway," he said. "I think we're gaining ground."