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Sheriff Mike Linder is sending a letter to the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to inform them that the actual cost to Yellowstone County to house a prisoner is $77.22 a day – not the $69.31 that the Montana State Legislature set as a cap of what the state will pay. The real cost is actually higher than that, said Linder, but the state will not allow capital costs to be calculated into the per diem rate.

The state is asking the county for a contract to confirm the rate and Yellowstone County officials are not too sure what such a contract would really do. Some counties have refused to enter into a contract, said Linder. Others, such as Gallatin County, refuse to accept state prisoners.

Deputy County Attorney Kevin Gillen said that such a contract is called “a contract of adhesion.”  “You take it or you leave it,” he said.

In a discussion, on Monday, county officials concluded that they will accept a contract with the state but the bills that they send to the state will include the real per diem cost of housing prisoners, even though they know they will only get paid the lower sum. This way there will be a record of what it is really costing, they concluded. The finance department estimated that the county stands to lose about $45,000 annually through the lower rate, based upon 2017 figures.

The state’s rate of $69.31 is actually a new rate – 31 cents higher than what the state has been paying.

Four years ago the state was paying $76.94 a day, but during a session in which the budget was very tight, legislators arbitrarily lowered the rate, and now they seem to like it there.

The good news, said Linder, is it will go up another 30 cents a day, in another year.

The federal government pays Yellowstone County a per diem rate of $97. When Yellowstone County holds prisoners for other counties those counties pay $100 a day, which includes the capital costs associated with building and maintaining the Yellowstone County Detention Facility. The City of Billings also pays $100 a day if the prisoner being held is being held on a violation of city ordinances rather than state laws – there are usually few of those. The city pays nothing on inmates charged with violations of state law since the city is part of Yellowstone County and taxpayers do pay public safety mill levies.

Gillen commented that what the DOC is really doing is “parking people in jail” because the state doesn’t have the capacity. He suggested that, while accepting the lower per diem rate, the county can insist that they get inmates out of the county jail in a more timely fashion.

No county is required to accept prisoners from the state. The prisoners are usually people who were county prisoners until they were prosecuted and sentenced in court, at which point they become “state prisoners.”

The number of prisoners held at the county by the state have declined, but said Gillen the trend is that they are released from state custody sooner without probation, which leaves them free to return and “re-offend”, at which point they again become the county’s problem.

On any given day the county holds between 40 and 50 state prisoners.