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Messenger: Lawyer who has freed the wrongfully convicted wants Missouri counties to stop charging for jail

Messenger: Lawyer who has freed the wrongfully convicted wants Missouri counties to stop charging for jail

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Charlie Weiss and I met on a cold February day 10 years ago.

We were standing in the reception area of the Jefferson City Correctional Center waiting for Joshua Kezer to walk to freedom. Weiss, a partner with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, was part of the team of lawyers who pressed for and obtained Kezer’s freedom, when a judge found him innocent of the murder charge that had kept him behind bars for more than 14 years.

Kezer walked right past us, through the blue steel doors to breathe his first fresh air of freedom.

Since that time, Weiss has helped free two other wrongly convicted men, George Allen and David Robinson.

Now he’s turning his attention to another injustice in Missouri’s courts.

Weiss wants the Legislature to make it illegal for counties to charge defendants for their time behind bars.

“It makes no sense to me,” says Weiss, a former president of the Missouri Bar Association. “I didn’t even realize that we were charging people to stay in jail.”

Weiss became aware of the fact that most Missouri rural counties charge defendants in the range of $50 a day for stays in the county jail while reading my series of columns on the practice. Last week, he wrote a letter to state lawmakers suggesting a change in the law. He included a proposed statute. They received it the same week the House gave initial approval to a bill that would make it illegal for judges to threaten more jail time in trying to collect those jail board bills, which can add up to several thousand dollars in some cases.

The House is poised to pass the bill sponsored by Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, and Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty.

It’s a good first step, Weiss says in his letter, but he doesn’t think it goes far enough.

“I am convinced the only way to solve the problem is to repeal the statute in Missouri that authorizes Missouri jails to charge persons confined in the jail for their stay in the jail,” Weiss wrote to several lawmakers, including Speaker of the House Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, and Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, who heads the special committee on criminal justice.

When that committee held a hearing on DeGroot’s bill, there was support for taking a further step and banning jail bills altogether.

“We’re almost asking them to pay twice,” testified Jeremy Cady of defendants. Cady represents Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian nonprofit funded primarily by the Koch brothers. His organization backs DeGroot’s bill, but also indicated it wouldn’t necessarily be opposed if the bill went further.

For Weiss, the move would be consistent with a set of principles he helped write last year for the American Bar Association. The “Ten Guidelines on Court Costs and Fees” are meant to move the criminal justice system away from one that is used to collect revenue — particularly from indigent defendants — and do a better job of protecting civil rights.

Among the guidelines are several that, if applied to Missouri’s debtors prison scheme, would end the process of charging for jail, and then jailing poor defendants who can’t afford to pay.

For instance, the guidelines say that fees imposed by the court should never be “in excess of a person’s ability to pay;” that a “punitive fine” should not lead to “undue hardship;” that incarceration should not be the result of a person’s inability to pay; and that a court must hold an “ability to pay” hearing.

Weiss knows that if lawmakers take him up on his suggestion, that some counties will oppose the legislation as it will cost them money.

Two Missouri counties — Laclede and Camden — collect more than $200,000 a year in jail board bill revenue, and about 10 others collect more than $100,000 a year. County commissioners and sheriffs won’t stand idly by if lawmakers decide to take away that revenue stream.

Of course, there’s a solution that involves counties not needing that money so badly.

“We’re probably putting too many people in jail,” Cady testified in a hearing last month.

Weiss agrees. He’s spent a lot of time in the past few years freeing innocent men from state prison, and now he thinks that the hundreds or thousands of indigent Missourians who are spending time in county jails mostly because they can’t afford bail or charges for their stays in jail need to be set free also.

“The consequences of these policies are just horrible,” says the St. Louis lawyer who grew up in rural Perryville. “We shouldn’t be funding our criminal justice system on the backs of poor people.”

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