Missoula, MT (KGVO-AM News) - Back in 1953, the State of Montana made an agreement with Lake County that the county would absorb the costs of felony prosecutions of CSKT Tribal members, however, as of Tuesday, May 21, the county will begin billing the State of Montana for those costs.

Lake County Paying Over $5 Million a Year for CSKT Prosecutions

I spoke with Chair of the Lake County Board of County Commissioners Gale Decker on Monday after receiving a press release from Lake County Sheriff Don Bell.

"To the Citizens of Lake County,

As you may be aware, we are on the eve of Lake County withdrawing its consent to bear the costs of PL280, a law which provides that the State, and therefore my Office, have jurisdiction over Tribal Members who commit felony crimes.  Because it has been widely publicized, I will not elaborate on the historical or ongoing political environment surrounding this issue.  It is my intent to inform the community that after Lake County withdraws its consent to participate in PL280, it does not divest my Office of my authority, or my obligation to ensure peace and order within our community.  This Office, and our Deputies will continue enforcing the law in the same manner we have under the PL280 arrangement for decades.  Following discussions with the Lake County Commissioners, it has been determined that we will begin tracking expenses and billing the state for these expenses related to enforcement under PL280.  I swore an oath to protect this community and want the community to know that withdrawal of consent from PL280 changes nothing in terms of the Sheriff’s Office response to crime and disorder in the county.


Donald R. Bell - Sheriff

Decker said the time has come for the state to pay those costs.

“The agreement has worked great,” began Decker. “It's a local solution. But the big thing that's changed has been the costs. At the time it was initially put in place, there was no cost to Lake County, but now our costs are estimated to be about $5 million a year, and these are all costs related to public law (PL) 280 jurisdictions.”

Decker said the county has made several attempts to get the state to pay these costs, but have been rebuffed.

“We've asked the state of Montana to pitch in and help with these costs, and we have been unsuccessful,” he said. “So in November of last year, the commissioners passed a resolution saying in six months, we are withdrawing our consent to enforce Public Law 280 jurisdiction. That six months is up today (May 20), and that's where we are right now.”

Decker says Lake County will now Bill the State Monthly for CSKT Felony Cases

Decker said starting on Tuesday (May 21), Lake County will be sending a bill to the state to pay for the costs of prosecution of CSKT felonies.

Decker said there was a ray of hope at the 2023 Legislature, but it was dashed by Governor Gianforte himself.


Governor Gianforte Vetoed a Bill on this Issue Last Session

“We got funding from the legislature the last session for $2.5 million a year and the Governor vetoed it,” he said. “He has emphasized to us that there needs to be a local solution to this issue, and that's exactly what we've had for 80 years. It's been a local solution that has worked quite well. In fact, the governor called it a model of success, but we can't afford all of the costs anymore as a county.”

The next legislative session will be in 2025, and this will be just one of the many funding requests presented to state lawmakers.

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