If you commit a crime, it’s going to cost you. And in Yellowstone County, like many places, a fair chunk of those payments go to private companies.

Most people know about bond: The judge can require you to post cash as collateral, designed to ensure you show up at future court hearings. If you aren’t able to post the full amount, you can go through a bondsman, paying typically 10 percent of the bond plus a fee, often $50, according to Kris Copenhaver, the new regional deputy public defender in Billings. 

But many defendants are surprised to learn about other ways that costs can pile up during the course of a criminal case, Copenhaver said.

“Even people that have had prior convictions are still surprised with all the costs associated with it,” Copenhaver said.

A judge can stipulate any number of pretrial requirements for a defendant, should they be released from jail. That includes:

  • GPS monitoring. Local provider Friedel LLC charges a $10 daily fee, in addition to a co-signer or a $500 deposit. (That’s down from the previously required $1,500 deposit.) Community Solutions Inc. charges $15 a day and no deposit. Alternatives Inc., another provider and a nonprofit, charges $9 day and no deposit.
  • Alcohol monitoring. This can be done via a breath test taken at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility, which costs $2 and is typically required twice daily. Another alcohol monitoring service, Soberlink, costs $10 a day through Friedel. Community Solutions charges $12 a day, plus a $60 administrative fee, for a bracelet alcohol monitor called SCRAM.
  • Drug monitoring, which often comes in the form of a patch applied to the skin, can cost $65 a week (Alternatives’ price) or $77 a week (Friedel’s). Community Solutions charges $25 per test.

“Pretrial can be very, very expensive,” Copenhaver said.

And that’s just during the early stages of a case. On top of the attorney fees, restitution, court costs and fines, there are several privately-managed services that offenders may be required to pay for.

That includes classes and treatment. In Yellowstone County, these are mostly offered through Alternatives, which employs its teachers, or Community Solutions Inc., which contracts with them. Licensed addiction counselors or licensed clinical social workers teach the classes.

Those include:

  • Minor in possession classes, which cost either $100 or $210, depending on the level required.
  • Parenting classes, which total $200 and require a $25 workbook.
  • Anger management classes, 25 hours of which costs $425, plus a $10 book, at Alternatives. At Community Solutions, 25 hours of anger management costs $265.
  • Evaluations for drug and alcohol abuse or anger management. The screening costs $200.

There are also classes for shoplifting, tobacco cessation, driver responsibility and writing bad checks. The workbooks are published by companies like the American Community Corrections Institute or Correctional Counseling, Inc.

Even paying court fines can mean money flows from offenders to private companies. Yellowstone County farms out the collection of online court fees to a private company, CitePayUSA, that charges a 5 percent service fee for all debit or service card transactions. 

While the costs add up quickly, Alternatives CEO Dave Armstrong is quick to point out that community corrections is not a big money-maker for nonprofits like his.

“There’s always this idea that we’re making a killing,” Armstrong said. “But I assure you we make every effort to make sure the person can afford it, but also that they pay their fair share,” he added, “because it is money that the taxpayer would have to pay or the services wouldn’t be available.”

The company often provides the lowest-cost services in the region. Last year it lost about $88,000 in waived fees and lost or damaged equipment for its jail alternatives program. It does receive about $132,000 in county funds each year. 

Still, the costs can be onerous to low-income or indigent clients. And a county subsidy program that helps felony offenders pay for monitoring costs doesn’t cover everyone who applies, according to Justice of the Peace David Carter. The program can serve 35 people a day, for up to $9 a day.

Most companies require payment in advance of service, which Copenhaver said makes it harder for her clients to afford their release. For instance, they might have Friedel’s $500 deposit to pay for an ankle bracelet, as well as a month’s payment due up front.

“So in order to even get hooked up on [GPS monitoring], you’re doling out eight hundred bucks before you can get out of jail, in addition to your bond, that then you’re going to have to keep paying on every two weeks, ahead of time, to maintain the GPS,” she said. “That’s a huge burden.”

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.