Lawsuit: Ravalli County runs ‘debt-induced poverty’ scheme with high pretrial fees
A federal class action lawsuit filed in Missoula District Court is accusing Ravalli County of running a “wealth-based discrimination scheme” by requiring pretrial arrestees to pay exorbitant fees to get out, or stay out of jail without considering their ability to pay.
The suit, led by Teri Lea Evenson-Childs and on behalf of others, claims the fees stem from pretrial supervision and are levied before an arrestee is released from jail. The suit names the Ravalli County Sheriff's Office as the defendant and was filed by Equal Justice Under Law based in Washington, D.C.
“The (county) refuses to release pretrial arrestees from jail until pretrial arrestees pay these fees, even after pretrial arrestees have paid their bail amount or have been ordered by the court to be released,” the suit claims. “If pretrial arrestees are released from jail, the (county) threatens to send they back to jail if they fall behind on their fee payments.”
According to the plaintiffs, the county's approach to pretrial supervision essentially pushes arrestees further into the criminal legal system and entraps them in a cycle of debt-induced poverty. By having to pay the fees, pretrial arrestees are deprived of their property without due process.
The fees also act as an extension of bail amounts, since the county requires the fees be paid to be released from jail - and to stay out of jail. That amounts to a violation of due process and equal protection from discrimination based on wealth, the suit alleges.
“Ravalli County, like many counties throughout the United States, has outsourced onto the backs of its poorest residents its obligation to fund its operations,” the suit states. “The county enforces its taxation-by-force system through constant threat of incarceration.”
Ravalli County officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
According to the suit, the pretrial fees incurred by an arrestee can amount to several hundreds dollars per month. Supervision costs $105 a month and drug patches cost $75 a month in a one-time administrative fee, plus $65 every 10 days.
A GPS ankle monitor includes a $75 one-time administrative fee plus $690 per month.
In many cases, the suit contends, an arrestee faces multiple conditions. One who is subject to supervision, drug patches and a GPS ankle monitor must pay $90 every month on top of $150 in administrative fees.
A person working full time on minimum wage makes around $1,400 a month while the average price of a one-bedroom apartment in Hamilton is around $840 a month.
“Pretrial fees are a ransom fee for pretrial arrestees: imposed without due process and under threat of harm (incarceration),” the suit states. “A pretrial arrestee’s freedom hinges on continuing to pay money to the Sheriff’s Office, which, like a mafioso charging a 'protection' fee, threatens harm if pretrial arrestees do not pay.”
The lawsuit seeks an order enjoining the county from continuing its fee-based practice, along with compensation for damages suffered by the plaintiffs due to the county's “unconstitutional and unlawful conduct.”
The suit isn't the first of its kind in western Montana. In 2018, a Ravalli County woman filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Missoula claiming it had illegally assessed a $25 surcharge as part of sentencing in Missoula Municipal Court.
That lawsuit sought to recover more than $500,000 in court-imposed surcharges and pass them back to thousands of violators sentenced in Missoula Municipal Court over the prior five years.