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Messenger: Rural Missouri judges are still holding on to debtors prison scheme

Messenger: Rural Missouri judges are still holding on to debtors prison scheme

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Janel Spoon was $2 short.

It was Feb. 9, 2016.

She lives in Rock Port, a tiny little northwest Missouri town. It’s just west of Tarkio and east of the Missouri River. Spoon had a court date in Andrew County, to the southeast of where she lives.

It was a payment review hearing to collect her board bill from a stay in the county jail.

Three years earlier she and her boyfriend stole some food from the Family Dollar store. Police found her with a jar of strawberry jam.

Spoon was arrested and jailed on a $20,000 bond. She couldn’t afford to bail out, so she was there for 22 days. She pleaded guilty to time served, and the payment review hearings began. At first she owed $770 for her time in jail.

In Andrew County, Associate Circuit Judge Michael Ordnung had a rule. If you didn’t pay at least $20 toward your jail bill, you could end up behind bars again.

For three years, Spoon made her payments.

On Feb. 9, she paid $18. A court official indicated to her that it wasn’t enough. So Spoon asked a friend to pay $2 on a credit card. The friend did so, and was charged $1.25 in a transaction fee to boot.

It wasn’t good enough. The $2 was made at 1:47 p.m. Court started at 1:30.

Ordnung issued a warrant for her arrest.

Spoon couldn’t believe it.

She wrote the court:

“I didn’t realize it was a set amount to get a new court date and not appear,” she wrote. “I didn’t have the $2 and I asked one of the clerks if she could work with me. She could not. … I recall in your courtroom hearing you lecture people about not making a payment and/or appearing. If they can’t, let you know. As long as we let you know what’s going on. Well, Judge, I honestly had no more money that day. If I could have paid it I gladly would have.”

Spoon showed up in court a couple of weeks later. She made another payment. The warrant was withdrawn.

Until earlier this year, when the Missouri Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in two cases remarkably similar to Spoon’s, this was a standard practice in rural counties across the state. Judges would act as tax collectors, forcing defendants who had long ago served their time to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in jail board bills or face a return to debtors prison.

The state’s high court said the practice is illegal.

Ordnung, apparently, didn’t get the message.

Last Tuesday, Spoon and several other similarly placed defendants were scheduled for hearings before Ordnung to pay their jail board bills. In a twist of irony, Ordnung no longer calls them “payment review hearings.” Instead, he’s even more direct. Now they are called “debt collection review hearings.”

For Matthew Mueller, the senior bond litigation counsel for the Missouri State Public Defenders Office, Ordnung is a symptom of how difficult it is going to be to unravel the state’s debtors prison scheme. Mueller, who successfully argued the cases that got the payment review hearings declared illegal, represents Spoon and several other clients in Andrew County.

One of them, John Martorelli, had a debt collection review hearing scheduled for June 11. He had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in 2011, and owed more than $6,000 in jail board bills, in part because Ordnung had him arrested twice over the years for failure to pay. Last month, Mueller filed a writ in Martorelli’s case demanding that Ordnung follow the Missouri Supreme Court decision and stop trying to collect the board bill through the courts. Ordnung complied.

Now, apparently, he is removing Spoon’s board bill, too, after she called the county clerk to complain.

And so it is in Missouri, where some judges in Andrew, Clinton and Scott counties, if not others, are still trying to collect board bills, and in Caldwell County, where Judge Jason Kanoy is sending board bills to the sheriff instead of the Office of State Court Administrator, as required in the law and the court’s ruling.

“Very little has changed in Andrew and Clinton County,” Mueller says. “Payment review hearings are still being scheduled for jail board bills. It is only when a defendant takes it upon themselves — like Janel did — to call the clerk’s office directly and inquire that they are excused from any further payments or appearances. But if the defendant does not take that initiative, they are still being ordered to appear and pay.”

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