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Montana State Prison

The grounds at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge are pictured here in this file photo.

The Office of the State Public Defender introduced legislation Friday to a House committee that looks to address a collections issue, one of the factors that led to an overhaul of the department in 2017.

Four years ago, OPD sponsored legislation that suspended clients' obligation to make payments on their public defender costs, if the judge had ordered they pay them, while they served prison time.

Since then, the state office has undergone a huge structural reorganization to try to stabilize budgetary and operational issues. On Friday, Director Rhonda Schaffer asked the House Judiciary Committee to end the payment suspension on clients who are incarcerated.

Despite the precise language of the bill, Schaffer said House Bill 116 only provides the opportunity for prisoners to pay their fees while incarcerated. It's primary purpose is collection after release, she said, to allow the Montana Department of Revenue to retrieve fees through tax returns or collections. Public defender fees are then deposited into the state's general fund.

Because OPD doesn't get notified when a client is released from prison, "it's really difficult for you to collect those fees," Schaffer said. 

"This isn't to take money once they're in jail, it's after they get out," she said.

Two people spoke against the bill, including a 20-year prison teacher and the Montana ACLU's policy director, S.K. Rossi.

"It seems from the proponent's testimony, a better fix would be notification to the OPD when someone is released from prison instead of trying to collect them from folks while they're still incarcerated," Rossi said.

Since prisoners in most cases are only able to earn about 25 cents an hour, Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, asked why the state should open the possibility to pursue prison income.

"That is why we want the process," Schaffer said. "If there's nothing that's earned in prison, it goes through the Department of Revenue. Once they're released, the Department of Revenue can attach any money that comes back to them before we even know about that."

Schaffer said she would be willing to support amendments to the bill to clarify that the legislation is, in fact, aimed at collecting fees through the Department of Revenue after clients' release.

The panel heard two other bills related to OPD Friday morning, both described by Schaffer as "cleanup" legislation. House Bill 89 would eliminate an account through which money flows between the client's payment on public defender fees and the general fund, where public defender fees are eventually deposited. The other, House Bill 117, would allow OPD to rescind its representation of a client if that person did not fill out the entire OPD application to determine if they qualify for a state-funded attorney.

Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen, D-Helena, asked how HB117 would affect transient clients. Schaffer said it wouldn't be a problem for representation, because those circumstances are uncovered in the application process.

The House Judiciary Committee will vote on each bill to either advance it to the House floor for debate or table them in committee.