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Lawmakers look to ease burdens of poor in justice system


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — In Missouri, when a person cannot pay court costs, fines, or “board fees,” they can be required to present themselves to a judge every month and failure to show up for a single hearing results in jail time. Added jail time increases the fees that person owes and for those that don’t have the funds, the cycle continues.

Two lawmakers in the Missouri House — one Republican and one Democrat — are looking to end that practices they consider “a modern day debtors prison.”

On Thursday, the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice held a public hearing on HB 192, sponsored by Rep. DeGroot. Rep. Mark Ellebracht is helping with the effort to eliminate monthlyow-cause” 

“All this bill does, is say ‘you can’t keep putting people back in jail for not paying their original board bill,’ like some judges are doing,” said Ellebracht.

“When people do a crime, they atta pay for it..however, once they pay their debt to society, I think the goal ought to be to get these people out of the system and back to being productive members of society,” said DeGroot.

But is some part of that state, those without adequate funds on hand have a multitude of barriers and burdens that prevent them from moving on, he noted. The issue came to his attention while reading a series penned by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger.

Those that testified in support of the bill has dozens of examples of folks that were essentially being jailed for being poor.

One example was of a woman who stole an $8 tube of mascara and know owes $15,000. She plead guilty to the office, spent time in jail, and was ordered to pay fines and her court costs, which included board for the time she spent in jail.

Since she was unable to pay the amount she owed, she was ordered to present herself to the court every month. Missing a court date led to a warrant being issued and her being put back in jail. The additional jail time was added to her bill. DeGroot noted “she will never get out of the system.”

Another example was a mother who was jailed for nine months because she violated a custody agreement. Since she couldn’t pay the $23,000 bill, she was order to attend monthly “show-cause” hearings. She missed a hearing because she was in the hospital and ended up back in jail.

Another example was a man convicted in 2009, spent 30 days in jail, and was unable to pay the bill when he got out. 10 years later he is still required to show up in front of a judge every single month, taking time off work, because he has yet to pay off his “board bill.”

“My concern is jailing of people on account of their poverty, and that is the issue here,” said Matthew Mueller, who works for the Missouri public defender’s office. “The intention behind this bill is very well put.”

The measure presented before the committee would eliminate show-cause hearings.

Those who are poor, supporters argue, should not have the added burden of having to show up to court every single month, taking time off work, and potentially incur more costs-owed in the process.

“We think this is fantastic,” said Jeremy Cady, Missouri director of Americans for Prosperity.

DeGroot said he was open any language that would make the bill better after concern over a may vs. shall was brought up. Some on the committee asked why they just don’t eliminate offenders being forced to pay for their jail stay.

Some counties don’t have the funds to adequately maintain jails off of taxpayer revenue, Ellebracht said. He noted it would take time and work before they could eliminate board bills from a statewide level.