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Opinion: Missouri’s criminal justice system reforms are a disaster

Missouri is engaged in a war of accountability. Our court system is the battlefield, and at stake are the fundamental principles of our criminal justice system. Led by the Missouri Supreme Court, advocates who feel that social activism is an end-all, be-all goal are locked in combat with local judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement doing everything they can to protect our society.

In 2019, the state’s high court enacted major changes to Missouri’s criminal system that effectively tied the hands of judges to use their discretion in the setting of bail. The consequences have been grave, with defendants who have been charged with crimes including robbery, assault, and even murder being released on their own recognizance. Their criminal histories are no longer factors when determining pretrial release. Moreover, once back in society, these individuals have no reason to mitigate their behavior as they are keenly aware that there is no penalty for their actions.

This past January, 82 Missouri legislators signed a letter addressed to the state Supreme Court denouncing their unilateral action and urging it to rescind the new rules. This followed numerous reports of defendants being charged with heinous crimes following their court-ordered release from jail without the need to post bail.

The right to bail is guaranteed in both our federal and state constitutions. Commercial bail has been effective and integral to our system of justice because, in a typical situation, after a defendant is arrested and charged, he or she is held in custody pending their trial. They are released on condition they appear for all mandated court appearances. In order to compel them to obey, a judge will set a bail amount commensurate with the crime they have been alleged to have committed, while considering other factors, including criminal history. In most cases, a family member, friend, or a commercial bail agent will post the bond that allows them to be freed. This part of the process is critical as to why it works. The defendant is obligated to the person — be it brother, sister, wife, or bondsman — for bailing them out. They are responsible for them. If they don’t show up to court, they are left, so to speak, holding the bag.

No other form of pretrial release has this single key feature: accountability. Personal recognizance bonds or GPS-based ankle monitors are woefully ineffective, with a greater than 50 percent failure to appear rate. Not only that, defendants with a history of domestic abuse are often released the same day, thus exposing vulnerable partners and family members to possible attack. There is a growing list of innocent individuals who have been assaulted and even murdered by defendants released on PR bonds.

Through the 2019 actions of the Missouri Supreme Court, the public has lost faith in the very system of criminal justice that should be protecting them. But it’s not too late to correct the problem. Commercial bail was never the problem it was made out to be, but rather, has always been a key component to the safe, effective, and fair means by which individuals are freed pending trial. With the encouragement of our elected officials, law enforcement, and judges, the court must be made to face the fact that they made a huge mistake when they implemented its new bail rules. The time is long past due to reverse their disastrous public policy and restore accountability to Missouri’s criminal justice system.