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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

George Richey

George Richey watches people cross Main Street as he waits for the post office to open so he can mail letters to a friend. While living in Appleton City, Mo., he has been unable to receive bills that have been sent to his son’s house in Warrensburg. Later in the day, Richey received two calls regarding missed payments on bills he had not seen. Photo by Jennifer Mosbrucker/Columbia Missourian. 

At the Missouri Supreme Court when lawyers argue their first case before the state’s seven black-robed judges, a veteran, somebody who has previously appeared before the court, will introduce those lawyers, telling the judges where they got their law degrees and a little bit about their careers.

There is a dignity to the tradition.

So it was Wednesday morning when public defender Matthew Mueller and prosecuting attorneys Joshua P. Jones and Kristen Hilbrenner appeared to argue two cases about men who were put in jail because they were poor.

The cases were brought by Mueller, whose girlfriend and parents sat in the front row. There were three rows of law school students in the back, witnessing what could be a historic case in Missouri.

“He sat in jail because he was poor,” Mueller said of his client, George Richey, of Appleton City. Richey lives on $630 a month in federal disability payments. When he hadn’t paid a more than $3,000 bill for his time spent in the St. Clair County Jail on a misdemeanor conviction, Jones sought a warrant for his arrest. Associate Circuit Court Judge Jerry Rellihan granted it, and Richey spent 60 more days in jail simply because he couldn’t afford the room and board previously charged him for the privilege of being “cared for” in jail.

There is no dignity in that.

Not for the thousands of indigent Missourians who have suffered from this rotten scheme for decades, losing jobs, cars and houses because they couldn’t afford to pay a jail bill that dwarfs any court costs otherwise imposed by the courts.

Not for the courts themselves, which week after week in Dent, in Caldwell, in Ray, Lafayette and St. Clair counties, run poor defendants through cattle-call court hearings, where they offer a few measly bucks to keep them out of jail for another month, before the process starts all over again, for months, for years, for a decade or longer.

“There really is no end in sight for our indigent clients in regard to these board bills,” Mueller told the judges.

On Wednesday, he asked the court to rule, as the Court of Appeals did in December, that the process of using the criminal courts to collect jail board bills, by hauling defendants before judges month after month facing the threat of jail, is simply not allowed under existing Missouri law. In various briefs supporting Mueller’s position, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, the American Civil Liberties Union, and multiple other civil rights organizations on the left and the right referred to the practice common throughout the state as being akin to debtors prisons.

That’s not fair, Hilbrenner argued when it was her turn to address the court.

These monthly hearings, which in some cases have gone on a decade or longer, are an “opportunity,” Hilbrenner told the judges.

Jones used the same word in trying to defend the process.

“This is an opportunity for the defendant to come to the court and explain his situation,” he argued.

An opportunity.

That’s not how defendants forced to find baby sitters and rides and get time off from their minimum-wage jobs see it. Not Cory Booth, of Caldwell County, who fretted over whether he could find a ride to a recent hearing. Not Brooke Bergen of Dent County, who sometimes calls me “freaking out” before her hearings because she is afraid she will be sent back to jail because she has no money to pay a $15,000 board bill that emanated from a stolen $8 tube of mascara.

These defendants, the ones represented by Mueller, or on their own, in nearly every rural county in Missouri, are depending on the seven judges of the Missouri Supreme Court to give them the opportunity to escape a system that has been abusing them for too long.

On Thursday morning, Mueller was across the street, this time testifying before the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice, which is hearing a bill that would explicitly ban the process that led to Richey, Bergen, Booth and so many others being jailed primarily because they had no money. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, and Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty.

In the hearing, Ellebracht used a different word to describe the process defended by two prosecutors the day before.

“Extortion,” he called it.

When counties charge defendants for an involuntary stay behind bars, and then threaten more jail time if they can’t pay, “extortion is the word for that.”

As the court and Legislature mull the issue, Cassi Licata had yet a different word on her mind. Since Jan. 3, she had been in the Ray County Jail held in lieu of $1,500 cash bail because she missed a payment review hearing while she was in the hospital during a high-risk pregnancy. As the court was hearing arguments in similar cases, she was finally released.

Her email to me had one word in the headline that said it all:

Freedom!

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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