Looking to continue the reforms implemented under her watch, Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst on Tuesday said she plans to file for reelection this week.
Pabst, who was elected to office in 2014 and replaced former Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, said she has reformed the local office over her first term to help it move past a contentious chapter in its history.
“I filed knowing at the time this office was in a state of turmoil, and there was the DOJ oversight,” Pabst said. “I decided it was time for this office, at least under my leadership, to stop fighting and start cooperating, and look at ways we could be better.”
Before taking office three years ago, Pabst began working with the U.S. Department of Justice to draft an agreement that guided the county through a contentious federal investigation over its handling of sexual assault cases.
That effort has helped transform the office into what Pabst described as a national leader for its handling of sexual assault and domestic abuse cases.
“We’ve come a long ways, and we’re now the flagship (special victims unit) program,” Pabst said. “Other jurisdictions come here to study our program, because we’re truly doing best practices in the field, and I’m truly proud of that and those people.”
In the past, Pabst said, her office designated one person to handle sexual assault and domestic abuse cases; it now has eight people assigned to the unit. The result has reduced the case load per prosecutor, enabling them to spend more time and attention on each case.
Her office also has established victim witness coordinators, along with an investigator, which Pabst said was beneficial for trial preparation.
“One of the gaps from a managerial standpoint was the training piece, so training has become a real priority for me for my employees,” Pabst said. “When you send people to quality training, it not only helps them be better at what they’re doing, but they tend to be more invested in their work and they stick around for a lot longer and engage more with the people we work with.”
As Pabst gears up for reelection, she’s also looking at additional changes she hopes to make to the office, including plans to launch a new diversion program led by prosecutors. That effort, which is currently in the works, could help low-risk drug offenders get treatment (see related story).
It could also help direct limited resources to where they’re needed most.
“Diversion is big, and it’s been on my plate since I took office and we’re finally starting to roll it out,” said Pabst. “We’re working to make the office more victim friendly and family friendly.”
That effort has seen the Missoula County Attorney remodel one of its conference rooms to make it less austere and more friendly to victims. Along those lines, it’s now in the process of establishing a family interview room to protect young children from frank conversations involving violent crimes.
“It’s a little more kid friendly and we can glass off the kids where they can’t hear the disturbing content, but the parents can still have eyes on them and know they’re okay,” said Pabst. “We’ve also got a lot of big trials on the docket for this next year.”
Pabst’s announcement signals the start of the 2018 election season, which will also include a race for the U.S. House and Senate as both Rep. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Jon Tester seek reelection.
Looking back on her first three years, Pabst said she’s pleased with her achievements and the changes she’s made to the system.
“When I took office, one of the things I wanted to do was improve our transparency and communicate with our constituents,” Pabst said. “The best way to do that is to have good relationships with our media representatives.”