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Precious Jones

Precious Jones. Post-Dispatch photo by Tony Messenger.

It was Mother’s Day weekend in 2017.

Precious Jones was in a hurry to get to her sister’s house in Kansas City.

Too much of a hurry.

Jones, 34, lives in the Baden neighborhood in north St. Louis. Headed west on Interstate 70, she got pulled over by the Missouri Highway Patrol for going 120 miles per hour. She was given a ticket and sent on her way.

She missed her August court date in Lafayette County.

“It slipped my mind,” she says.

Jones straightened it out. She turned herself in to local police, paid the bond on her outstanding warrant, and called the court to set up a new court date. She took driver education classes and did community service. She hired a local attorney. He told her that if she agreed to pay a higher fine, the points on the speeding ticket wouldn’t be assessed against her driver’s license.

In May, Jones pleaded guilty to the Class B misdemeanor of speeding at least 26 mph over the speed limit. She didn’t expect what came next.

Associate Circuit Court Judge Kelly Rose gave her a six-month jail sentence and two years probation. The jail sentence would be suspended if Jones did 20 days “shock time” in jail, on consecutive weekends.

“She just threw the book at me,” Jones says. “I could have gotten this deal myself. Why did I pay $300 for a lawyer?”

Because of the conviction, Jones’ driver’s license was suspended, and would stay that way until she paid all her court fines and did her time. She asked the judge if she could do her weekends in jail in St. Louis. The judge said no.

So, this summer, she begged for rides, and every Friday for 10 weeks was dropped off at the Lafayette County Jail. On one day in May, she was an hour late to jail. Jones had gotten a job working for the United Way in St. Louis. She works until 6 p.m. Making it to Lafayette County by 10 p.m. was no easy task.

In June, on one of the days she was supposed to be in jail, her car broke down.

Jones called the jail, which documented the call. The next day she made it to Lafayette County. The jail kept her for her full two days.

By July, Jones figured she had paid her debt. She did all of her time, and she paid all of her fines, including a bill for her jail time. In September, she got a notice from Lafayette County in the mail.

There was a warrant out for her arrest.

Because she had been late to jail, even though she stayed and did her full time, prosecutor Kristen Hilbrenner was seeking to revoke her probation.

The attorney in her case, James Worthington, of Higginsville, withdrew, saying he wasn’t retained to work on a probation violation case. So now, Jones has a warrant out for her arrest, with a $2,500 bond attached to it, and she’s facing a six-month jail sentence.

For a speeding ticket.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Jones says. “They are just not going to let me go.”

Jones is an example of a widespread problem in Missouri’s rural courts, in which in too many situations, especially when the defendant is poor, the system seems to look for reasons to cite probation violations in misdemeanor cases, and tie people to the court system for years, in an effort to increase local revenue. If Jones ends up doing more jail time in Lafayette County, she’ll be billed for that time, and could end up owing thousands of dollars. And if she can’t afford to pay it, she’ll be summoned by the judge across the state every month to explain herself.

For Jones, that will be quite a hardship at the moment.

Despite the promise from her attorney and the court, as outlined in court records, that the speeding ticket wouldn’t carry points against her license, nobody told the Department of Revenue. So Jones’ license has been suspended.

She gets rides or takes the bus to get to work or wherever she needs to go. She’s called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, in hope that somebody will help get her out of a new jail sentence that she can’t believe is even an option.

“I’m losing everything,” Jones tells me. “They keep coming back for more. They’re trying to milk me for all I’ve got.”

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