House votes to prevent jailing of Missourians for failing to pay jail bills

The Missouri House has voted to keep judges from putting people back in jail for failing to pay for the costs of keeping them in jail.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 192 would keep a person’s failure to pay a jail for housing that person, from resulting in more jail time that would result in additional housing costs.  Instead, a local sheriff could attempt to collect such costs owed through civil proceedings, or a judge could waive those costs.

The legislation is sponsored by Chesterfield Republican Bruce DeGroot, who worked closely with Liberty Democrat Mark Ellebracht.

HB 192 has broad, bipartisan support, as members of both parties agreed that being jailed for failing to pay so-called “board bills” only created a cycle of debt that some Missourians have been trapped in for years.  Legislators gave examples of individuals who had stolen items like makeup or candy, and years later owe tens of thousands of dollars to the local jails that had housed them.

“It just seems so contradictory that I can’t pay a $1000 bill, so you put me back in jail, so that when I get back out of jail now my bill is $1,500.  It just seemed to keep going for forever,” said Representative Deb Lavender (D-Kirkwood).

“In my opinion the goal of the criminal justice system … if you do something wrong, you should be punished.  On the other hand, once you’ve completed your punishment, once you’ve served your time in jail, man, the goal ought to be to get those people back out into society [to] be productive of society, paying for their families, rather than have them in jail dodging warrant servers, and get them back on the tax roll,” said DeGroot.

Ellebracht stressed that these “board bills” are not the same thing as court costs or fines that might be assessed against a defendant.

“When somebody gets thrown in jail, their time is their punishment.  That’s the point of it … but the money that’s accrued for your care – for your food, your clothing, the shelter over your head that the county’s providing – that’s money owed for a service provided incidental to your punishment,” said Ellebracht.  “So, the sheriff has every right to collect that money … they just don’t have a right to keep bringing you back to court and throwing you in jail, thereby accruing more board bills to do so.”

DeGroot said he doesn’t fault the judges in the state who have been jailing individuals over board bills.

Representative Mark Ellebracht (photo; Tim Bommel, House Communications)

“The judges in the counties that practiced this way, I think, are all trying to reform themselves now because they know that not only [the legislature] but the Supreme Court has an appetite right now for curbing this kind of behavior,” said DeGroot, “but they were just, in my opinion, just using the tools that they had available to them.  They didn’t know how else to collect, because the threat of jail time is much more severe than, ‘We’re going to take your stuff.’”

HB 192 would do away with hearings in which the court requires a defendant to show why he or she shouldn’t be jailed for failing to pay board bills.  Lawmakers heard that defendants are often required to appear monthly for such hearings and a warrant is issued for them if they fail to appear.

The bill is supported by a number of groups including the Missouri State Public Defender, the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

The House voted 156-1 to send the bill to the Senate for its consideration.