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Missouri Supreme Court’s new bail rules go into effect

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — New bail rules set by the Missouri Supreme Court officially went into effect Monday, meaning courts will no longer be able to detain certain nonviolent offenders before a trial simply because of an inability to afford bail. 

The state’s highest court announced the move from monetary bail requirements during a State of the Judiciary address in January. The Supreme Court has tasked judges with considering non-monetary conditions of release unless deemed necessary for public safety or to ensure an alleged offender will show up to a scheduled court appearance. 

“Too many who are arrested cannot afford bail even for low-level offenses and remain in jail awaiting a hearing,” Justice Zel Fischer said. “Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs, cannot support their families, and are more likely to re-offend. We all share a responsibility to protect the public — but we also have a responsibility to ensure those accused of a crime are fairly treated according to the law and not their pocketbook.” 

Last month, a federal judge ruled that St. Louis could not continue to keep people in prison for simply being unable to afford bail — a precursor to the changes that went into effect Monday and underscoring what the state Supreme Court had decided. 

Thomas Harvey, an attorney with the Advancement Project and part of the team that filed the lawsuit in St. Louis, said the judge’s decision goes a step further than the Supreme Court by ensuring courts clearly “articulate on the record what standard they are applying to make a determination that a person has to be held in preventative detention.” 

“This judge has rightly indicated that simply because the Missouri Supreme Court has rules that are supposed to govern the actions of judges, doesn’t mean we can solely rely on that in order to ensure people’s constitutional rights are being protected,” Harvey previously told The Missouri Times. “She’s saying just because these new rules are supposed to go into place, doesn’t mean a court is going to follow those rules.” 

However, the move has been derided as a “catch and release” program by those opposed to the changes. The American Bail Coalition, particularly, called the changes a “potentially unconstitutional move” that could “demoralize law enforcement, embolden criminals, and give short if any shrift to the rights of … those victimized by crime.” 

Some law enforcement officials in the state have also opposed the changes. 

“The Missouri Supreme Court has basically given a free pass to those who are repeatedly breaking into our house, our businesses, stealing vehicles, or dealing drugs,” Laclede County Sheriff David Millsap told KOLR-TV

A few bills similar to the Supreme Court’s changes were brought up during the 2019 legislative session, including Rep. Steve Robert’s HB 666, but were ultimately unsuccessful.