County jails will soon receive additional funding to hold state inmates, a balm to counties that have increasingly been footing the bill.
The new reimbursement rates were authorized in House Bill 174, sponsored by Billings Republican Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe and signed last week by Gov. Greg Gianforte.
The new daily rate to be paid to county jails by the Montana Department of Corrections will be $82 and goes takes effect July 1. That's up from $69, the capped rate put in place by the 2015 Legislature.
In these cases, the person has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to state custody. However, those under state custody often have to wait in the county jail for space to open at a state prison or rehabilitation center.
The true daily cost of holding people in jails in Montana's urban counties is typically more than $90. That gap has spurred counties to sue the state to recover the costs paid by county coffers since the $69 cap was put in place eight years ago. Inflationary increases have brought the rate up by a hair, to $69.63.
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"This is an issue we've been working on since the 2015 session," Nanette Gilbertson, executive director of the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, told a Senate finance committee in April. "… It is not going to cover the entire costs for local detention facilities to house the inmates for which the state is responsible, but it gets us a lot closer than the $69.63."
Cascade County had sued to recover the costs for holding state inmates in its regional prison, but agreed to dismiss the case in 2021 after an agreement that transferred state inmates out of its facility entirely. That arrangement sent state inmates to the private prison with 753 beds near Shelby. Cascade County's facility now holds federal inmates once housed at the Shelby prison.
Missoula County costs have reached as high as $122 per inmate per day, a jail official told the Montana State News Bureau last year. Missoula County in 2020, filed a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Corrections to recoup the funds footed by county taxpayers for state inmates. A District Court judge last year ruled the county was barred by a statute of limitations and unable to recover its claims: roughly $550,000 for costs incurred between 2015 and 2018. Missoula County appealed the case, arguing the judge applied the wrong statute, and the case remains ongoing in the state Supreme Court.
Deputy County Attorney Brian West in the office's civil division said Wednesday HB 174's passage will not impact the county's lawsuit against the state.
The new $82 rate is still a smaller reimbursement than Missoula County got prior to the 2015 cap. Prior to that legislative session, the Department of Corrections paid Missoula County roughly $88 per day per inmate, based on a formula determining actual costs of incarcerating someone.
Supporters of HB 174 agreed during the Legislature that some increase would be better than nothing.
"It doesn't make them 100% whole," Karen Alley, representing the Montana Association of Counties at the April legislative hearing, told lawmakers. "However, by increasing the rate of reimbursement … that decreases the loss to the counties."
The new rate is tied to the per-diem rate allocated to CoreCivic, the private prison company operating Crossroads Correctional Center near Shelby. The bill states the rate paid to county detention centers will be $82, or 10% less than the rate paid to CoreCivic, whichever is higher. Inflationary increases that state analysts projected at 1.5% would hike CoreCivic's rate from $92 per day in fiscal years 2024 and 20215 to $93.38 in fiscal year 2026 and $94.78 in 2027, incrementally raising the county jail rates along the way.
Throughout the session, lawmakers repeatedly indicated the state has about 280 inmates sitting in county jails waiting for transfers. That number was raised in debates over a proposed $8 million deal to send 120 inmates to a private CoreCivic prison in Arizona. That proposal was on again, off again as lawmakers debated its merits, but ultimately passed in House Bill 817, which carries $200 million in infrastructure projects for the state-run prison near Deer Lodge.
That bill cleared its final procedural hurdle at the Legislature on Tuesday with the Senate President's signature and has not yet been transmitted to the governor's desk.
According to the corrections department's daily population listings online, Montana State Prison on Wednesday had 40 more inmates than it has beds, of which there are 1,523. Crossroads Correctional Center had 766 inmates for its 753 beds.