Legal dispute between county, state over transfer of inmates sentenced to state prison from county jail continues

The Montana Department of Corrections filed an objection in Cascade County district court on April 9 asking the court to vacate it’s April 2 order to transfer 11 inmates from the Cascade County jail to DOC facilities.

Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki had filed motions on April 1 asking the court to order the transfer about two dozen inmates who had been sentenced to DOC but were awaiting transport.

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That same day, Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive suspending transfers into DOC custody.

On April 2, Judge Elizabeth Best signed orders for 11 of the inmates for DOC to pick them up within seven days, or on the eighth day, the county would transport those inmates to DOC.

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In response to the DOC’s objection, Best filed an order temporarily staying her earlier order and giving the DOC until April 14 to address four issues:

  • “the factual basis for which the DOC contentions that transfer of prisoners to begin their sentences with the sentencing policy of the state adversely affects the DOC in a manner that is greater than the adverse effects to the public, the prisoners and on Cascade County;
  • the factual impact of the DOC’s refusal to transfer prisoners on implementation of the state sentencing policies, particularly the 2018 criminal justice reforms, which focus on rehabilitation and not warehousing inmates on the public, the county and the state;
  • the factual basis for argument that holding sentenced inmates at the CCDC puts the health and welfare of inmates and staff at lower risk than would transferring them to the DOC custody; and
  • the legal basis for the assertion that the DOC is the ultimate determiner of the sentence for individual prisoners, rather than the judiciary.”

According to Best’s order, nearly all of the inmates awaiting transport to DOC custody to begin their sentences need chemical dependency and/or mental health treatment. They have been waiting weeks and in some cases months at the county jail, which has been chronically overcrowded for years.

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One of the inmates in question is Katelyn Craft, who was sentenced for two counts of felony deceptive practices related to the 2016 murder of Adam Petzack.

She was sentenced to two consecutive 10-year sentences at the Montana Women’s Prison.

The DOC objection filed in court states that she was sentenced in January 2020, but multiple news articles on the case indicate she was sentenced in February 2020.

It its objection, the DOC argues that Best’s order to transport the inmates “improperly encroaches on the DOC’s authority and discretion to administer the placement and movement of state inmates just when the state of emergency requires the exercise of that authority and discretion to mitigate the risk to offenders and staff presented by the COVID-19 disease.”

In an email to The Electric on April 10, DOC Director Reginald D. Michael said, “At this time, the DOC is not transporting prisoners under DOC custody or jurisdiction, unless it is absolutely necessary pursuant to urgent emergency need.  That decision has been made to ensure consistency with the letter of the CDC’s Interim Guidance on Management of COVID-19 in Correctional and Detention Facilities, as well as Governor Bullock’s Stay at Home Directive.  Upon consultations with medical professionals and the Governor’s Office, we have decided to severely limit our participation in prisoner transports and movement for a two-week period, ending April 17, to ensure that public health of all Montanans is best maintained.  We will re-evaluate how this virus has progressed at that point, and how that progression impacts public health, prisoner transports and related services. We are strongly recommending against any transportation of prisoners within the state of Montana at this time, unless urgently required for emergency purposes.  We do not believe it would be consistent with the current recommendations of the CDC, and it simply poses an undue risk to the public health of all Montanans.”

For the inmates that have been sentenced to state prison but are awaiting transport, the state pays the county $69 per day per inmate. The county has said in multiple public forums that the actual cost to house inmates is more than that daily.

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The county is currently suing the DOC for costs associated with housing inmates who have been sentenced to stat prison but are being held in county jail awaiting disposition of other charges.

The county alleges in that lawsuit, filed in August 2019, that the state owes Cascade County more than  $766,599 for room and board of people serving a DOC sentence at the Cascade County facility. The state is also owes the county for unpaid medical services for DOC inmates, but an amount is not specified in the lawsuit.

Racki told The Electric on April 10 that the jail population was 385 with 25 awaiting transport to DOC custody.

If those inmates were transferred, the county jail would be at its 360 capacity for the first time in years.