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Bill ends jail for those who fail to pay fines.

Byline: Scott Lauck

The Missouri legislature has passed a bill repealing a state law allowing defendants to be jailed for failure to pay a fine.

The bill, which now heads to Gov. Mike Parson, cleared the House 138-11 on May 13. It previously passed the Senate 32-0.

Sponsoring Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield and an attorney with Brown & James, said the bill would build on a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling, State v. Richey, which held that courts have no statutory authority to impose defendants' bills for their incarceration as part of court costs.

DeGroot called that ruling a "step in the right direction," but his legislation goes further by repealing statutes that allow judges to imprison defendants for failure to pay a fine. The fine still can be collected through normal means of collecting money judgments, other than as a lien on real estate.

"In no event shall the recovery of costs incurred by a municipality or county for the detention, imprisonment, or holding of any person be the subject of any condition of probation, nor shall the failure to pay such costs be the sole basis for the issuance of a warrant," the bill says.

DeGroot said he was inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of columns by Tony Messenger in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which highlighted instances in which people charged with minor offenses incurred hefty jail bills that they could not pay, which led them back to jail.

"We had created a system whereby they could never leave it," DeGroot said. "I want to get them back out of jail, back at home, back working, back on the tax rolls, back providing for their own families."

The bill drew wide bipartisan support. Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty and an attorney, praised DeGroot's efforts. Ellebracht and DeGroot frequently are foes on bills that tighten tort laws, but Ellebracht said they worked together on the criminal-justice reform bill.

"We are correcting a problem that a lot of people face in the state of Missouri," he said.

The bill drew some opposition from representatives who said it would give a pass to people who had repeatedly broken the law.

"The easiest thing for people to do is not break the law," said Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Cape Girardeau. "That way they don't have these problems hanging over their head."

The bill also changes the state's mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. It requires the state parole board to evaluate prisoners who are serving mandatory minimums and decide if they should be released.

"This legislation supports the reform of a system that unfairly targets marginalized communities," Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri, said in a news release. "We will support continued changes to the justice system in Missouri and work for the day that our criminal-justice system is free from racial bias, promotes public safety and respects constitutional liberties."

The bill is projected to decrease Missouri's prison population by 925 people and save approximately $5.8 million by the time it is fully implemented in 2023.

The bill is HB 192.

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Publication:Missouri Lawyers Media
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:May 21, 2019
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