There is no legal or moral justification for rural Missouri counties to continue their policies of charging prisoners for their food and housing, and jailing them when they can't pay their court bills. Why has the Legislature allowed these practices to persist?
The Post-Dispatch's Tony Messenger has spent months examining the Dickensian debtors' prison system that prevails in numerous rural Missouri counties. One major reason why the practice has persisted in far-flung counties is that journalists and columnists like Messenger tend to be in scarce supply, so the taxpayers stay uninformed about the injustices being enforced in their name. If more Missourians knew about the courtroom abuses that drive misdemeanor offenders into lifetimes of debt, they wouldn't stand for it.
More to the point, they would not keep re-electing the state legislators who have allowed debtors prisons to continue. Some state legislators are finally getting the message and are planning to introduce bipartisan legislation in the 2019 session to make such practices stop.
Rural Missouri is responsible for the Republican Party's almost complete domination of politics at the state level. But rural voters aren't stupid. They see the various ways GOP lawmakers have maneuvered to suppress their incomes, drive down the prices of their farm produce and limit their access to quality health care.
Legislators should be fully aware that the income margins preventing rural Missourians from falling into poverty are precariously narrow. People living on the edge tend to do desperate and even stupid things. Like stealing lawn mowers or tubes of mascara. Such crimes deserve appropriate punishment, but not condemnation to a lifetime of poverty and indebtedness.
Too many rural residents find themselves in serious financial jeopardy because their county courts make it impossible for them to pay off their fines. Judges see themselves not as administrators of justice but collaborators in a scheme to milk defendants for every dollar they can.
Missouri state Reps. Bruce DeGroot and Mark Ellebracht have co-sponsored House Bill 192, which would stop the practice of constantly hauling defendants into court and jailing them or piling ever-higher fines on them for failing to pay their existing court bills. Their legislation would introduce a better system of civil collections for past-due court fines.
There are dozens of reasons why these pernicious practices must end. Foremost is the snowballing effect when poor people get caught up in a system designed to put them in an inescapable financial chokehold. If it gets bad enough, they can lose their jobs, housing, cars and even custody of their kids — all so county courts and municipalities can earn a few extra bucks.
As former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell told the Legislature in 2015, turning courtrooms into profit-generating centers "creates at least a perception, if not a reality, of diminished judicial impartiality." The Legislature must not allow it to continue.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH