Missouri Could Soon Shut Down Its System of De Facto Debtors' Prisons

By Daily Editorials

March 8, 2019 3 min read

The Missouri House this week gave near-unanimous approval to a measure that would stop local court systems from trapping those who commit minor crimes in an endless cycle of escalating fines and incarceration. The Senate should waste no time passing this bill so Gov. Mike Parson, a supporter of criminal justice reform, can sign it.

This system of de facto debtors' prisons only came to lawmakers' attention because of an ongoing series of columns by the Post-Dispatch's Tony Messenger. His reporting serves as a reminder of the importance of a free and vibrant press.

Messenger spotlighted a phantom industry of local courts squeezing low-income defendants for more and more money once they've been jailed for even minor infractions. Under state law, defendants can be billed for the expense of jailing them. Those who can't afford these bills can end up back in jail for nonpayment — which adds additional debt to their room-and-board bill.

In this way, defendants who have been arrested for traffic offenses or other misdemeanor infractions that might normally cost a few hundred dollars in fines and a few days in jail can instead rack up thousands of dollars in jail fees. An inability to pay prompts more and more jail time. It's a self-perpetuating scam. The longer the defendant is jailed, the more fees are charged, making it harder to pay, which is used as justification for still more jail time and bills.

For many defendants, there's no way to break this cycle. But the Legislature can, and it looks like it soon will.

As the Post-Dispatch's Jack Suntrup reported this week, the pending measure would forbid courts in the state from jailing defendants for failure to pay previous jail fees. Counties could still use civil action to collect those fees, but they could no longer treat poor defendants like monetary investments that grow each time they're slapped back in jail.

The measure, House Bill 192, passed the House Monday on a 156-1 vote. That's an unusual level of agreement on any substantive issue these days, but in this case, the legislation makes so much sense that the only surprise is that there was even one vote against it.

All indications are it will get through the Senate with similar ease. It seems a good bet that the governor would sign it, given that he has strongly and correctly made the case for criminal justice reform in general. This is the very definition of such reform.

Missouri should close this dark chapter in its jurisprudence, but it's important for all to remember how this distorted system was exposed. It wasn't reformers in the court system or Legislature who initially flushed out this injustice; it was the free press — an institution politically and economically beset from all sides today, but one without which democracy cannot survive.


Photo credit: at Pixabay

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