A potentially landmark ruling last week by Missouri Appeals Court's Western District could end the practice of counties charging board to defendants found guilty of misdemeanors and felonies for their time spent in county jails.
The ruling in favor of John Wright of Higginsville came after a series of reports by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger on so-called "debtor's prison" issues and should spur Missouri lawmakers to address a problem that is growing more acute, especially in rural areas.
In Wright's case, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of stealing and resisting arrest after failing to pay for a taxi ride in 2016 in Lafayette County.
Like many rural Missouri counties, the Associated Press noted, Lafayette County requires inmates to repay jail-related costs. Wright was ordered to pay about $1,300 for food and housing and was required to appear monthly in court to review how he was repaying the money.
Moreover, if costs are not paid or monthly show-cause hearings are missed, people like Wright -- who Messenger wrote suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 19 and remains unable to pay -- could have their parole revoked and returned to jail, where more costs accumulate, creating an endless cycle of increasing debt.
The three-judge appeals panel ruled unanimously that using the court system to collect debts is illegal, including show-cause hearings. The court found "nothing in the (state law) provides specific authorization for the taxation of an unpaid board bill as a court cost."
If the decision is upheld, judges may no longer send people to jail or add to their debt or punishment after the fact, a practice that reportedly is common in counties across the state, including Northeast Missouri.
One case highlighted by Messenger involves Shanda Ganaway, a Canton, Mo., woman who pleaded guilty to felony drug distribution near a school in 2014. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison by Lewis County Circuit Court Judge Russell Steele, but the sentence was suspended, and she was placed on five year's probation.
However, Messenger wrote, Ganaway was arrested in 2015, and her probation was revoked. After spending 187 days in the Lewis County Jail, she was sent to prison for 120 days.
In Missouri, Messenger pointed out, if you are convicted of a felony, the county can bill the state Department of Corrections for the time you spent in jail before trial. The problem is that the state reimburses counties only $22 per day, and the payments often are late and usually do not cover the full costs incurred by counties.
So Ganaway, who Messenger writes is insolvent, is facing a bill of $3,300 from Lewis County. If she doesn't pay or misses a hearing, she could be sent back to jail, and that bill would grow even larger.
The Post-Dispatch reports that bipartisan House Bill 192 has been introduced, which it said 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.
The legislation, the newspaper said, would introduce a better system of civil collections for past-due court fines.
That could be a promising start. Clearly, those who break laws should be punished appropriately, but they should not face excessive punishment and debt because of a flawed and underfunded criminal justice system.