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Woman sues Corrections over jail bills

Woman sues Corrections over jail bills

July 8th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Local News

A Northeast Missouri woman sued the Missouri Department of Corrections last week, claiming she should not be charged for the part of her jail bill that the state hasn't paid.

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The case — filed last week in the Cole County Circuit Court because the Corrections Department headquarters is in Jefferson City — was assigned to Presiding Circuit Judge Pat Joyce.

The department had not filed a response by Friday, but the case could bring renewed focus to an issue that's plagued county governments throughout Missouri.

State law says: "In all cases in which the defendant shall be sentenced to imprisonment in the penitentiary the state shall pay the costs, if the defendant shall be unable to pay them, except costs incurred on behalf of defendant."

That includes the county's costs for holding someone in jail before they were convicted — once they go to prison.

But the state limits its reimbursements, no matter the amount of the bill the county government sends.

Cole County officials couldn't be reached Friday to comment.

In 2015, then-Sheriff Greg White told the state Senate Judiciary committee Cole County alone lost "roughly, plus or minus $600,000" in 2014 in expenses the state didn't pay.

"It's a big issue to us and it really equates to a service reduction — what we can do, what we'd like to do and what we can't do," White said at the time.

Doc Kritzer, who in 2015 was Callaway County's Western District Commissioner, told that same committee: "(It) is important that everyone recognize that the people we house in the county jail broke a state law — they didn't break a county law. And we are trying to get nothing more than a reimbursement back from the state, to take their responsibility and recognize that these people are their violators."

Matthew Mueller, a Kansas City-based senior bond litigation counsel for the Missouri Public Defender System, said his seven-page lawsuit highlights another issue: "Once the defendant is released from prison, these counties will then go after the defendant to pay the balance of costs not paid by the state. In many instances, these defendants are re-arrested and sent back to jail and, potentially, prison for not paying these fees."

Mueller argued, "These fees were all assessed against the state, not the defendant."

Mueller filed his suit on behalf of Shanda Ganaway, now 38, of Canton, who pleaded guilty in Lewis County Circuit Court in 2014 to a Class A felony charge of distributing a controlled substance near a school.

Judge Russell Steele sentenced her in November 2014 to 10 years in prison, then suspended the execution of the sentence and placed her on five years of supervised probation.

But on Aug. 12, 2015, he determined she had violated her probation and ordered her to serve the sentence.

That triggered the county's sending a bill to the state.

At $38 a day, Lewis County's bill to the department came to $7,106 for the 187 days Ganaway had been held in the jail, Circuit Clerk Jan Geisendorfer told Ganaway in a letter included as an exhibit in the lawsuit.

Mueller's lawsuit said the bill noted its costs were ordered to be "chargeable against the State" and included a note that "Ganaway was 'insolvent' and otherwise unable to pay."

But, the lawsuit noted, "Missouri law caps the daily amount expended for the 'actual cost of incarceration,'" which is not to exceed $37.50 per day per prisoner.

Additionally, Mueller wrote: "The Missouri Department of Corrections has an agency rule capping the daily amount expended for 'board rates.' As of July 1, 2017, this amount was capped at $22.58 per day."

Under those rules, he said, the Department of Corrections paid Lewis County only $3,721.46.

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Steele had allowed Ganaway to be released if she successfully served a 120-day, in-prison shock treatment program.

When she was released, she was told she needed to pay the outstanding balance — $3,384.54 — and agreed to a $50-per-month payment plan, which later was reduced to $25 a month.

Mueller reported in the lawsuit he had asked the circuit clerk for "any legal authority for requiring Ms. Ganaway to pay costs when those costs were previously assessed against the state," and Geisendorfer said she simply was "following the Court's Order by assessing and collecting these court costs."

Mueller argued in the lawsuit: "There is no authority for holding a criminal defendant responsible for costs which have previously been assigned against the State. There is also no authority for holding a criminal defendant responsible for the balance of costs not paid by the State."

Mueller asked for a declaratory judgment that Ganaway doesn't owe the outstanding balance.