A potential class action lawsuit in federal court against Ravalli County claims officials there have run what amounts to a debtors’ jail that preys on indigent and poor people, making them more likely to re-offend or stay in poverty.
Meanwhile, county attorneys say the trial is nothing more than a smart bail-centric analysis, and that the fees and charges assessed by a diversion program are legal because they are contractual and deal with all residents in the same way, regardless of their economic status. Additionally, he said the judges and some officials named in the lawsuit should be given immunity because state law grants immunity to those who hold office.
A Washington DC-based group of lawyers, Equal Justice Under the Law, along with the law firm Upper Seven in Montana filed the case in the Missoula branch of federal court. They said officials running the jail, county commissioners and judges are part of a plan that can charge those awaiting trial but not convicted more than a car payment or rent. a month just to avoid going to jail. Lawyers said authorities in Ravalli County were threatening to return those charged but not convicted to jail for lack of payment. And finally, the practice is akin to demanding bail repeatedly.
The lawsuit brought by a group of people who used the prison diversion scheme said it was an economic trap designed to frustrate them.
In Montana, people charged with crimes have the right to a bail hearing. Once the amount of the bond has been set, a person can, if they have the means, withdraw. However, Ravalli County employs a “jail diversion” program, which it says is the result of court orders. When bail is set, judges and justices of the peace often set “bail conditions.” These conditions often include a ban on the use of drugs or alcohol, especially if these are related to the charges.
Ravalli County then charges people in prison diversion programs with monitoring and testing for substances such as drugs and alcohol, as well as charging for supervision. These fees are charged in addition to the damage deposit and are recurring charges. The lawsuit states that sometimes a suspect can be released on bail for months or even years before their case is resolved. Since they remain free, some of them face hundreds of dollars in recurring charges.
The case said the costs are never refunded if the person is found not guilty.
“Countywide program terms also erode existing financial stability while making it extremely difficult to find or maintain employment, but those arrested before trial face constant threats of incarceration for non-payment” , says the lawsuit. “Meanwhile, the accompanying conditions and costs are pushing vulnerable people arrested before trial into deeper poverty, causing homelessness and inflicting other harm.”
One of the plaintiffs in the case had to submit to a breathalyzer test three times a day, every day, seven days a week. If she missed a test, she would be liable for a drug test, which would cost between $35 and $50. It lasted a year and a half, according to the lawsuit.
The same woman was billed $55 per month in supervision fees and $270 per month in alcohol supervision fees.
“By paying these costs while on a fixed income, the plaintiff could not afford her own accommodation and other necessary expenses, including food and petrol. She became homeless and struggled to get away from her abusive partner, who used the prison diversion program as leverage over her,” the lawsuit said.
Another plaintiff had also been released and posted bond, but Ravalli County ordered him to pay an additional $600 in pretrial costs.
“He was forced to stay in jail for an additional week before he managed to scrape together the money to buy his freedom,” the lawsuit said, noting that his monthly fee was $640.
Another different plaintiff was imprisoned twice for non-payment of “trial costs”.
Another plaintiff who was homeless was not released without an ankle monitor.
“(Ravalli County) demanded over $1,000 as ‘bail’ on the ankle monitor that was not court-ordered because he is homeless,” the lawsuit states. “While the (county) ultimately relented on the ‘deposit’, due to these claims based on his homelessness, he spent additional weeks in jail after the court ordered his release and he paid bail. .”
Constance Van Kley of Upper Seven Law said that for someone earning an average salary, an extra $600 a month would be tough.
“It’s childcare or more than a car payment,” Van Kley said. “For these clients, fresh out of prison, everything is already hanging by a thread, but now you have a question about stable housing, if they can afford food and can they find stable employment in This program.”
Mitchell Young, an attorney representing Ravalli County, said he was simply following the judges’ orders and billing the costs incurred.
“The county sets fees for services, provides court-ordered services, and reports non-payment of fees to the court,” the response reads. “The plaintiffs allege that the county, acting through Sheriff (Stephen) Holton, is threatening to send them back to jail if they fall behind on their fees; however, the plaintiffs in the next paragraph acknowledge that it is the district and court judges who actually revoke bail for non-payment of costs.
Mitchell said fees are set based on services and what judges order is simply passed on to plaintiffs.
“Evidence of discriminatory intent is totally lacking,” the county’s response said. “Recovering the costs associated with providing a government service is a rational basis for charging fees. Because the county has a rational basis for imposing a pretrial service fee, and because the plaintiffs provide no evidence that such fees are intended to discriminate against indigent people, the plaintiffs do not seek equal protection.
Moreover, Young argues that the lawsuit may come down to a misunderstanding that the diversion fee is really only part of the bond.
“While plaintiffs attempt to artificially separate the two proceedings, pretrial service requirements are simply conditions attached to a defendant’s bail,” the county’s response said. “If a court can impose a monetary bond as a condition of release, it is unclear why a court cannot also order release conditions that impose a monetary charge.”
The lawsuit says the county violated due process and the plaintiffs’ equal rights of protection. They are asking the court to certify that this is a class action case.
“The plaintiffs and other class members will be irreparably harmed because … they will continue to be subject to wealth-based imprisonment, loss of employment and income, homelessness and other forms instability caused by the … pre-trial fee regime,” the lawsuit said.
Citing a Montana State Supreme Court case, plaintiffs’ attorneys said the county cannot “assume that a person, found guilty of no crime, is nevertheless sufficiently guilty for monetary exactions.”
“(Ravalli County) is imposing these charges with no end in sight. Unlike bail which, once posted, is satisfied, the pretrial fee remains in effect until (county) decides otherwise,” the lawsuit states. “Persons arrested before trial are neither credited with costs in the event of ultimate guilt nor reimbursed when charges are dismissed or an acquittal is obtained.”
The lawsuit also accuses the county of knowing the plaintiffs are poor, but profiting from it anyway, essentially withholding their freedom for ransom money.
“The resulting debtors’ prison deprives defendants of their freedom because they are poor. Defendants know that indigent people arrested before trial cannot pay these fees because they are eligible for a public defender, but this information is never applied to exempt arrested people from paying fees or taken into account when defendants imprison people arrested for unintentional non-payment of costs.
The courts, not the county
Young, the Ravalli County attorney, said the plaintiffs’ trial was misdirected. Their concern or matter should be taken to court because the county simply follows what the judges order. However, the lawsuit also notes that judges are immune from prosecution when dealing with cases in their official capacity.
“The court has discretion to … vary the bail conditions, revoke the bail, or impose any other bail condition it deems appropriate,” the lawsuit states. “It is the authority of the court acting in accordance with Montana law that compels these deprivations.”