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State of the Judiciary 2019: Fischer emphasizes changes to bail rules

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court emphasized the importance of treatment courts and investing in the court system while outlining a plan to alter pretrial detention rules.

Zel Fischer spoke to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly for the second time, presenting the 46th State of the Judiciary address. He was met with applause throughout the speech that focused on nonpartisan issues such as treatment courts, retired lawyers offering their services pro-bono, and military spouses being allowed to practice without sitting for the bar again.

On Wednesday morning, Fischer unveiled an upcoming rule change on how to handle pretrial detention.

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

Throughout the last year, the high court brought together a whole host of experts — judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law professors, and court officials — to identify ways for improving the criminal justice system. That group identified significant changes to the rules governing pretrial release.

The changes, which will take effect July 1, 2019, include a turn away from non-monetary bail requirements unless necessary and the length of time a defendant may be detained without a hearing.

After implementation, the courts will be required to start with non-monetary conditions of release and may impose monetary conditions only if necessary and only in an amount not exceeding that necessary to ensure safety or the defendant’s appearance. The court may not order a defendant to pay any portion of the costs of any conditions of release without first considering how to minimize or whether to waive those costs.

A court may order a defendant’s pretrial detention only if it determines — by clear and convincing evidence — that no combination of non-monetary and monetary conditions will ensure safety of the community or any person, under the new rule.

The new rule also limits how long a defendant may be detained without a court hearing and ensures a speedy trial for those who remain in jail.

“This new rule helps ensure the determinations – and conditions – of pretrial release are made with the best information available. We believe these changes will improve our criminal justice system,” said Fischer.

He also emphasized the need for the state to invest in the court system.

“I know revenues are tight, you have important priorities to consider … and I do not imagine you have very many constituents calling or e-mailing you begging for additional court funding…” said Fischer. “But that does not mean your court system and the services we provide are not critical for the health of our state.”

The court system struggles to meet the public’s 21st-century expectations with 1990s resources, he noted.

The Missouri General Assembly in 1994 mandated the development of a statewide court automation system. The $7 fee has not changed in a quarter-century and does not generate enough money to sustain current functions, according to Fischer. He noted, the fee only pays for a third of the technology necessary to provide the services Missourians have come to expect.

“We may find out by July 2021, when we anticipate the Missouri courts’ statutorily mandated system – built on 25-year-old technology – will be unable to receive critical system updates. We are building a replacement case management system, but at current funding levels, the new Show-Me Courts system – which includes municipal case processing – will not be finished in time,” said Fischer.

“Missourians expect your courts’ technology systems to join the 21st century, which will require increased and sustainable funding from general revenue.”

The high court’s chief justice also emphasized the importance of funding treatment courts, including veterans courts. Fischer praised the legislature for expanding treatment courts in 2018 and Gov. Mike Parson for making the issue a priority.

“Over-incarcerating nonviolent offenders — especially drug and alcohol offenders — cost millions and is not curing the problem. We need to spend public funds where we see proven results. Often, what they really need — and what we can provide without compromising public safety — is treatment for substance abuse and mental illness,” said Fischer.

He asked for the General Assembly’s help in funding the “vital services.” Parson included in his budget recommendations a restoration of the rest of the core funding to the treatment courts they asked for last year but did not receive, plus nearly $3.1 million in additional funding to help expand the reach of our treatment court services.

Under the treatment court branch is a sector-specific to a unique population: veterans.

“It is incumbent on us to make sure the justice system for which they have sacrificed recognizes their unique challenges and does not leave them behind,” said Fischer. “Our veterans treatment courts are a win-win for all Missourians — in addition to helping those who have served our country regain their lives, crime is reduced, public safety is improved, and we are able to better protect those who have protected us.”

A rule that has been in effect for less than one month, and has been used, was also highlighted by Fischer.

Under the new rule – which took effect January 1 – lawyers with licenses in good standing from other jurisdictions, whose spouses are full-time active service members of the United States armed forces assigned to a duty station in Missouri or a contiguous state, can apply for temporary admission to practice law in Missouri.

Dedication to the law, and not personal bias, was theme Fischer emphasized throughout his address.

“Public opinion tends to galvanize behind particular outcomes. Judges have a duty to resist that temptation. Our duty, in fact our oath, is not to be popular but to be faithful to the law,” said Fischer.