Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) A federal magistrate has ruled that a class action lawsuit against Ravalli County’s jail diversion program can proceed, with indigent citizens saying the county is running a scheme that leaves clients who are unable to pay hundreds of dollars a month sitting in jail, instead of out on bail.

In a court ruling in January, Magistrate Judge Kathleen DeSoto narrowed the lawsuit and said that while many Ravalli County officials, including Sheriff Stephen Holton, could not be held liable for the diversion program, she also certified that the indigent plaintiffs’ case against the county’s program could proceed as a class-action.

The case, which was filed in 2021, claims that in addition to receiving a bail amount, many indigent residents have to sign up for a jail diversion, which can require monitoring for alcohol or drugs and check-ins with supervisors. The former inmates say they have to pay hundreds of dollars a month, and if they don’t they’re sent back to jail. They also argue that the fees they pay make it unable for them to secure housing and transportation.

Meanwhile, county officials say they are merely providing supervisory services based on previous behavior or for public safety. They also contend that often those awaiting trial re-enter the jail based on other violations, such as drugs or alcohol; and no one is detained because of inability to pay for the jail diversion program.

DeSoto said that a trial or discovery is an appropriate way to tease out the facts of the case, but for now, the plaintiffs have proven enough to continue the case as a class action against Ravalli County.

“Because indigent pretrial arrestees may be incarcerated if they cannot afford pretrial fees, plaintiffs allege that (Ravalli County) treats similarly situated pretrial arrestees differently based on indigency, and in doing so, engage in wealth-based discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause,” the suit said. Furthermore, it said that jailing them for an inability to pay “constitutes false imprisonment.”

The plaintiffs also say that even after they post bail, which is a constitutional right in Montana in most cases, the county will not release them until they sign contracts agreeing to pay the fees and agree to the fee schedule regardless of their ability to pay. They also contend they have no means of objecting to or challenging the fees.

“Whether pretrial arrestees can, as the county seemingly suggests, request a waiver or reduction in jail diversion program fees during the bond hearing, or by moving to modify the conditions of their release or alter the conditions of bail is not clear,” DeSoto wrote. “Even considering the bail statutes … plaintiffs have adequately pled procedural due process violations based on the county’s alleged failure to provide adequate notice of the jail diversion program fees and a reasonable opportunity to contest those fees.”

However, county and state judges, who were also named as part of the lawsuit, said that they don’t revoke an arrestee’s bond just for failure to pay.

However, DeSoto dismissed part of the lawsuit that included proposing a class of arrestees who are non-indigent as a possible group of people harmed, saying that they are not similarly situated and that attorneys for the class action failed to make an adequate argument that their claims should be included.

According to the lawsuit, more than 800 individuals have been placed into the jail diversion program, and it has an indigency rate of 83%.