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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bill Would Allow State To Collect Public Defender Fees From Incarcerated People

Montana Capitol.
Corin Cates-Carney
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol.

The Montana Office of Public Defender is asking lawmakers to allow it to collect fees from people who are in jail or prison. A bill to do that was introduced Friday, and drew a rebuke by one of the office’s own attorneys.

The change proposed by OPD would reverse 2015 legislation that suspends payments by people for their public attorney until after they are released from prison or jail.    

OPD Director Ronda Shaffer told lawmakers today that can be a problem, because her office does not have information that triggers the collection of payment when a person leaves prison.

“It's really difficult for us to be able to collect those fees,” she said.

To make it easier, Shaffer says law should allow the state to start collecting on these payments while the person is incarcerated. It would give the Montana Department of Revenue the power to collect the fees in cooperation with OPD to pay for their use of a public defender. The Department of Revenue is the agency that collects Montana’s state income tax.  The agency could garnish peoples’ tax refunds to pay legal fees.

Danny Tenenbaum, an appellate attorney with OPD, says he is disappointed to see the office support the bill that, “Impoverishes not just the people it’s supposed to fight for, but their spouses and children too.”

"If you had suspicion that the criminal justice system today is just a gigantic money-making scheme; this bill pretty much proves it,” Tenebaum said.

The ACLU of Montana also spoke against the bill during, primarily questioning how someone could pay their fines while not having a well-paying job in prison or jail. 

The ACLU said a better fix would be for OPD to be notified when someone is released from prison, instead of trying to collect from them while they’re still locked up.

The bill’s sponsor, Representative Kenneth Holmlund of Miles City, says the bill is not meant to be punitive.

“It is a situation of trying to correct something that, when it happens occasionally where there is somebody, such as they've got a tax return or something of that nature, that the funds can be deposited.”

OPD Director Rhonda Schaffer said during the bill’s hearing that the office would be open to an amendment clarifying the legislation's intent.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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