After lawsuit, Missoula County urges state to pay full cost of housing state inmates

Missoula County is hoping to head off another revenue cap established by the Legislature on what the Montana Department of Corrections will pay counties to house state inmates.

In a letter to the Law and Justice Subcommittee, where the caps typically originate, the county argues that such unilateral caps conflict with the Department of Correction’s statutory obligation to pay counties the actual cost of holding a state inmate.

“It violates the Constitution and it violates the contractual obligation to Missoula County,” said Anna Conley, the senior civil deputy attorney with the Missoula County Attorneys office. “There’s existing litigation.”

Last April, Missoula County filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections claiming it had breached its contract by not covering the full cost of housing state inmates at the local detention center.

The county’s complaint also included an unjust enrichment claim against DOC, along with breach of good faith and fair dealing.

“Missoula County attempted to resolve the situation in which the Department of Corrections is underpaying us for the inmates we house, both on the pre-trial side as well as the correctional facility we have with DOC,” Conley said. “We’re the only county I’m aware of that has filed suit on these particular actions. But there are other counties that are negatively impacted.”

The Department of Corrections said Wednesday it was not able to comment on ongoing litigation.

“While the department cannot comment specifically on ongoing litigation, we certainly value and appreciate our long partnership with Missoula County and hope to resolve this matter soon,” Deputy Director Cynthia Wolken told the Missoula Current.

Missoula County contends that it’s impacted twice by the state’s unilateral caps because it operates both a county adult unit and a regional correctional facility.

The county’s adult unit includes a 224-bed facility used to house pre-trial inmates, as well as inmates sentenced to the Department of Corrections but have not yet been transferred to a state facility. The state decides when to transfer an inmate, not the county.

During that time, the county is responsible for providing medical care, mental heath treatment, food and clothing. It must also provide staffing, deal with visitors and provide legal support.

“These caps do not save Montana taxpayers money,” the county’s letter to the Legislature states. “Instead, they shift the financial burden to counties, forcing us to use property tax general fund revenues to operate safe detention centers to provide a constitutionally adequate standard of care to inmates.”

Under state law, according to the county, DOC is required to pay a rate that covers the “reasonable cost of confinement.” The county has calculated that cost at $111.58 a day, as of 2018.

However, the Legislature has capped the rate of reimbursement at just $69, leaving county taxpayers to cover the rest. Missoula County believes the state now owes it several million dollars for the cost of housing state inmates.

“The basis of their underpayment is that during the last three legislative sessions, they’ve inserted unilateral caps on what DOC can pay counties to house their inmates,” Conley said. “This is even in the face of contracts that require them to pay actual or reasonable costs, depending on the per diem issue. If we get another session with another unilateral cap, we’re going to continue to have to fight about the caps.”

Breach of contract: Missoula County to file suit against state seeking millions of dollars