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Messenger: After state pays jail bill of indigent felon, Lewis County seeks even more

Messenger: After state pays jail bill of indigent felon, Lewis County seeks even more

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JEFFERSON CITY • While Shanda Ganaway’s attorney was standing before Cole County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Joyce trying to erase a $3,300 bill for time spent in jail, Ganaway was 142 miles away in Monticello, Mo.

There, she had a hearing before Lewis County Circuit Court Judge Russell Steele.

Both hearings on Thursday morning were about the same thing.


In 2014, Ganaway pleaded guilty to felony drug distribution near a school. The 38-year-old from Canton, Mo., had a drug problem. She has since sought treatment. Steele sentenced Ganaway to 10 years in prison but suspended the sentence. She was placed on five years’ probation.

In 2015 she was arrested and her probation was revoked. After spending 187 days in the Lewis County Jail, she was sent to prison for 120 days.

In Missouri, 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 provision of law has long been controversial for a couple of reasons. First, the payment from the state to the counties is subject to appropriation, and the Missouri Legislature never appropriates enough money for the full statutory limit of payment. Right now, the state reimburses counties $22 per day for stays in the county jail on felony cases, and in many cases the state is behind on its payments. Most counties charge more than that, sometimes twice as much.

Second, as former Supreme Court Justice Mike Wolff wrote in a 2010 opinion in a case on court costs, the constant push and pull between counties and the state over funding for the criminal justice system has serious consequences.

“We should acknowledge,” Wolff wrote in the case, which involved a Barton County dispute over who should pay for prosecutors’ pensions, “that the state’s interest in its criminal justice system exceeds its willingness to pay the costs.”

He cited the “board bill” statute as an example: “The incentive, of course, is for local prosecutors to urge judges to send offenders to state prisons at a far greater cost than the cost of punishing those who otherwise could be punished through greater use of county jail facilities. This shows that sometimes not paying for something ends up costing more.”

In the case of Ganaway, the question is who will pay for her stay in the county jail.

Matthew Mueller says it should be the state.

Mueller is the senior bond litigation counsel for the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office. For the past year or so, he has been challenging cases in several rural counties over the practice of charging indigent defendants “board bills” for their stays in jail, and then forcing them to appear month after month before the judge to make a payment or explain why they can’t.

In Ganaway’s case, because she was convicted of a felony, Lewis County already billed the costs to the state. As is required in state statute, the judge, prosecutor and circuit clerk all signed a declaration that Ganaway was insolvent and couldn’t afford to pay the bill. That is necessary before a county can bill the state.

As Mueller explained to Judge Joyce on Thursday, Lewis County billed the Department of Corrections, which then paid $22 a day on the 187 days Ganaway was in the county jail.

But when Ganaway was released from prison after serving 120 days, more insolvent than ever, she, too, got a bill from Lewis County. Because the state’s reimbursement didn’t cover the county’s full bill, the county wanted her to pay it, or she’d be subject to another probation violation.

So Ganaway started paying. She lives with her sons, ages 12 and 19. Her only source of income is from Social Security payments. She’s paid about $700 of the jail bill so far.

Mueller wants Joyce to order that she should get that money back.

“Because the costs were taxed to the state, Ms. Ganaway shouldn’t be responsible for it in any way,” Mueller argued. The court’s own action, he said, has “absolved her from any liability.”

Then he explained to Joyce why Ganaway wasn’t there.

Steele is one of many rural judges in the state to hold monthly “payment review hearings.” If Ganaway didn’t show up to his court Thursday morning, a warrant could have been issued for her arrest.

This process seemed to catch Joyce, the presiding judge in Cole County, by surprise.

“She shows up every month?” she asked.

Yes, Mueller responded. “This is happening all over the state, your honor.”

Arguing on behalf of the Department of Corrections, assistant attorney general Andrew Crane suggested Mueller’s dispute wasn’t with the state but with Lewis County.

In the end, Joyce will decide.

One way or another, the case could have far-reaching effects on people, who, like Ganaway, end up tethered to a court system being used by both the county and the state as a collection agency for an underfunded justice system.

“I think it’s wrong,” Ganaway says. She called me after her hearing in front of Steele. She is scheduled for another payment review hearing in March. “I did my time and then some. This is how they get people. They keep them on probation, and then if they don’t pay their board bill, they violate the probation. It’s an ongoing story.”

Jailed for being poor is Missouri epidemic: A series of columns from Tony Messenger

Tony Messenger has written about Missouri cases where people were charged for their time in jail or on probation, then owe more money than their fines or court costs. 

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