BELLE FOURCHE –– Butte County has seen a consistent increase in the number of criminal cases handled by the state’s attorney’s office in the last handful of years, and even during a global pandemic, 2020 was no different.
“Really, in Butte County, we haven’t slowed down much,” Butte County State’s Attorney Cassie Wendt told the Pioneer Monday. “So a lot of what we do has been very, very on track, compared to some counties.”
While 2020 did bring some downtimes related to crime, Wendt said the shortages were made up for after business returned to normal.
“As we look at some of our numbers, I think that obviously as the (COIVD-19) restrictions got … a little tighter, then you don’t have people going to restaurants and drinking,” she said, adding that the number of charges dropped substantially between April and July.
However, on the flip side, Wendt said that county law enforcement changed the way it processed people through the system to avoid unnecessary grouping in the jail. That included 24/7 violators and probation violations.
“So then, I think when that August/September (timeframe came around), and we started loosening things up, we had all that stuff to make up from the times that we were stepping back,” Wendt said.
During the Jan. 19 county commission meeting, Wendt shared statistics and trends seen over 2020.
For offenses against other persons, there were 148 total counts, down from 157 in 2019. Among those were 20 counts of simple assault; 65 counts of simple assault, domestic violence; 16 counts of aggravated assault, domestic violence; and 18 counts of violation of bond/protection order. Simple assault, domestic violence counts were up by four in 2020, with 61 in 2019.
The increase in those statistics, Wendt said could be somewhat correlated to the pandemic, considering the potential for financial stressors and the probable loss of outlets, including personal and social activities.
“There have been some of those circumstances where being home and together all the time does make it tough,” Wendt said.
As for offenses against property, 2020’s caseload was somewhat down, with 145 total counts compared to 178 in 2019. Grand theft counts rose slightly to 37, up from 34 in 2019. Petty thefts remained consistent at 51 counts in both 2019 and 2020.
Forgery counts were down significantly in 2020, with four counts, compared to 41 in 2019, mostly due to a single case, according to the report. Trespassing cases were also remarkably down, with 10 in 2020, compared to 30 in 2019.
Continuing the trend that has pervaded the county in recent years, drug and alcohol counts continued to represent the majority of the workload by the state’s attorney’s office in 2020. With 397 counts of alleged drug and alcohol in 2020, the charges were slightly up over the 387 counts alleged in 2019.
Conversely, ingestion of marijuana counts took a significant dive in 2020, with four counts, compared to 33 counts in 2019. Also, counts related to methamphetamine decreased to 58 counts in 2020, down from 70 counts in 2019.
Driving and boating under the influence counts have remained relatively consistent, with 79 total counts in 2020, compared to 81 in 2019. However, the report states that zero-tolerance DUIs, involving defendants under the age of 21, increased by 50% in 2020, with eight, compared to four in 2019.
Sexual offenses and those against minors were down in 2020, with 43 total counts, compared to 61 in 2019.
“However, we also suspect the decrease could be due to the fact that COVID had an impact on school attendance, and when children are not in school they do not have contact with a trusted adult, such as counselors or teachers, to whom the child feels comfortable disclosing potential criminal activity,” the report stated.
The number of alleged rape counts fell significantly in 2020, to seven, down from 12 in 2019.
Additionally, law enforcement figures for 2020 back up the busy conditions seen within the county prosecutor’s office.
As of July 1, 2020, the sheriff’s office had already been called to assist with more than 21,000 calls. Furthermore, sheriff’s deputies responded to 51 domestic violence calls and 64 protection order hearings by July 2020.
“That’s pretty significant,” Wendt said. “Their call volumes continue to rise significantly.”
Participation in the county’s 24/7 program has added to the workload for the sheriff’s office, as well. In 2018, Wendt said the county processed 400 preliminary breath tests or urinalysis tests. In 2019, that jumped to 1,800. And in just the first half of 2020, Wendt said that number skyrocketed to nearly 2,200.
The statistics related to the Belle Fourche Police Department mirror those of the sheriff’s office, Wendt said. In 2014, she said the department received 10,585 calls for service; in 2015, that dropped to just more than 9,000; in 2016, it was just under 10,000; in 2017, 8,896 calls; 2018, nearly 11,000; in 2019, 9,500 calls, and by 2020, the department received 10,905 calls.
“If you look at law enforcement, too, we’re on the rise there,” she said.
After a handful of years of instability, the police force within the county has steadied, which Wendt also attributes to the cause of more cases being prosecuted.
“Less officers come and go … that makes the numbers go up because we have the officers available,” she said.
The prosecutor expects the crime stats to continue rising in Butte County in the coming months.
“Over the last five years, we’ve continued to see things rise … I think you’ll continue to see things go up as our population goes up, as we continue to add law enforcement officers, you’re going to see more cases,” Wendt said.
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