Court rules in favor of Cascade County, orders transfer of sentenced inmates to DOC custody

A Cascade County district court judge ruled in favor today of Cascade County and again ordered the transport of 11 inmates within five days from the county jail to Montana Department of Corrections facilities so they can begin serving their sentences.

County Attorney Josh Racki said the county will now file similar motions seeking the transfer of about a dozen other inmates into DOC custody.

As of April 21, the jail population was 390, according to Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter. The transfer of those inmates sentenced to DOC custody would bring the jail population the closest to its 365 capacity as it’s been in years, he and Racki have said in recent weeks.

Earlier in the month, the county filed motions requesting 24 inmates be transported from the county jail to state custody since they had been sentenced. The same day, Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive halting any transfers into state custody.

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The following day, District Court Judge Elizabeth Best signed orders mandating transport from county jail to state custody in 11 of those cases.

DOC objected and Best gave DOC until April 14 to respond to several questions.

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DOC and the county attorney’s office responded and on April 21, Best issued an order lifting the stay and again ordering the transfer of 11 inmates.

In her order, Best wrote that DOC did not address several of the questions she asked in her April 10 order temporarily halting the transfer to address DOC’s objections.

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The issue of whether to transport is being couched in the COVID-19 pandemic, but is also challenging corrections reforms made by the 2017 Justice Reinvestment Initiative passed by the Legislature that was largely pushed by the DOC.

Local law enforcement officials statewide have criticized the reforms and locally, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter and Great Falls Police Chief Dave Bowen have been vocal about the ineffectiveness of the reforms and have said publicly on multiple occasions that at least some of those reforms are weakening public safety.

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Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki wrote in his response to the DOC’s objection that holding inmates in the county jail for an indeterminate amount of time after they’ve been sentenced to DOC is against those justice reforms, that were advertised as efforts to reduce the number of people in jail in favor of more community based and treatment programs.

In the DOC response, filed April 14, it argued that its objection to the transfer orders “is consistent with its efforts to implement the 2017 criminal justice reforms. For instance, if the DOC has to place an offender in the prison, instead of waiting in the county jail for a treatment center bed, that is one more offender being warehoused rather than being rehabilitated in a community-based program. Accordingly, the Court’s transfer orders, while well-intended, will not prevent warehousing; by interfering with community-based placements, they may actually increase unnecessarily warehousing while also undermining the state executive branch policy limiting the movement of inmates during this emergency.”

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In the DOC response, the lawyers argue that in the case of several inmates, they had other charges pending, were awaiting admission to various treatment programs or other screening to determine appropriate placement.

When Cascade County seeks to relieve its overcrowding in its jail through a court order, the overcrowding does not disappear, but adversely impacts the entire corrections system, disrupting the DOC’s operations and adding to the already complex management of offenders from throughout the state,” according to the DOC response.

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In her order, Best wrote that the DOC did not respond to her question regarding the justice reforms and only stated the laws allowing it to assess prisoners for placement in appropriate programs.

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“The DOC has done none of this, leaving defendants with serious mental health and addition programs to languish in an overcrowded jail with no treatment. Not only does this underserve the defendants it flies in the face” of those justice reforms, Best wrote, “and does nothing to rehabilitate or increase public safety. Given the length of the sentences many of these defendants received many will be released without any treatment at all, thus continuing the revolving door cycle of addition and mental illness in our criminal justice system.”