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Messenger: Supreme Court 'adds teeth' to criminal justice reform in Missouri

Messenger: Supreme Court 'adds teeth' to criminal justice reform in Missouri

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JEFFERSON CITY • Thursday was Notorious RBG Day in the Missouri Capitol.

There, in a basement hearing room, lawmakers of both parties were celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court decision that came down the day before, the decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and unanimously agreed to by the court, the decision signed by Justices Roberts, Gorsuch, Thomas and Kavanaugh, the decision that could change the criminal justice system in Missouri and every other state forever.

State Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, was almost giddy as he described the court’s decision to apply the excessive fines clause in the Eighth Amendment to states and local governments. Dogan leads the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice, and it has been hearing a series of bills that deal with what he calls “policing for profit.”

On this morning, the committee passed Dogan’s bill that deals with the underlying issue in the previous day’s court decision, asset forfeiture. In that case, Timbs v. the State of Indiana, police had seized the $42,000 Land Rover SUV of small-time heroin user and dealer Tyson Timbs. The car is worth more than four times the maximum fine for Timbs’ conviction of selling a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of heroin. The Indiana Supreme Court had ruled the seizure was acceptable because the Eighth Amendment didn’t apply to states.

Now it does. And that puts the wind behind the back of the bills making their way through Dogan’s committee. His bill would stop the practice in Missouri of state police agencies’ avoiding state jurisdiction by seeking asset forfeiture under guise of federal law, and keeping any seizures made in drug cases.

Under Dogan’s bill, which passed unanimously, such forfeitures would be done under the color of state law, and any money or assets taken would go to the state, reducing the profit motive of individual police agencies.

Next up was state Rep. Justin Hill’s bill, which would reduce the incentive for private probation companies to drug test defendants charged with misdemeanors that have nothing to do with alcohol or drugs.

“There is an incentive to keep (defendants) in the system so (the private probation companies) can keep getting monthly fees,” Hill said.

Indeed, testified Michael Barrett, head of the Missouri State Public Defender’s office, all of these elements of policing for profit work together to harm the criminal justice system and keep poor people buried in deep poverty.

There are more than 14 pages of various fees, fines and court costs outlined in Missouri law, Barrett said. The most punitive is often the jail board bill that most rural counties charge. Barrett recounted the story of Cory Booth of Caldwell County. When he was 17, Booth stole a lawnmower. He was jailed. He ended up supervised by a private probation company, which said he violated his probation because of drug use. He spent more time in jail and got an even bigger bill he couldn’t afford. More than 11 years later, he’s still paying, still poor, still tied to the court system that calls him back month after month simply because he owes room and board for his involuntary incarceration.

“Too often, these fines and fees keep (defendants) in the criminal justice system long after their time has been served,” Barrett said.

He told Dogan’s committee that the Supreme Court ruling in the excessive fines case had “given more teeth” to the cause of criminal justice reform.

Joanna Weiss agrees. The co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center said that the decision should signal to policy makers that if they didn’t act, expensive litigation would be on the way.

“This should put pressure on policy makers to make change now,” Weiss said in an interview, “because we know the excessive fines clause applies to states.”

Last month, Weiss’ organization was one of several to file an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit filed by Barrett’s office that says the process by which jail board bills are collected in Missouri is illegal. The brief went further than some others in the case, suggesting that the entire board bill scheme is unconstitutional, applying the same excessive fees clause to the issue at the center of Ginsburg’s opinion in the Indiana case.

“The imposition of jail board bills on indigent defendants is … excessive, plainly counterproductive, and likely unconstitutional,” the brief argues.

Soon, the Missouri House will decide if it agrees. A bill that eliminates jail time as a penalty for failure to pay a board bill could head to the House floor as soon as next week.

Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, says he backs the bill, sponsored by Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, and Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty:

“I am extremely supportive of the efforts to improve our criminal justice system, which is why I emphasized the need for reform in my opening day address, created a special committee to study the issue, and worked to make sentencing reform legislation one of the first bills out of the House this session,” Haahr said. “Rep. DeGroot’s bill is an important part of our efforts to make our justice system fairer and more accountable.”

It is a view that mirrors that of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In short, the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming,” Ginsburg wrote for the unanimous court. “Protection against excessive punitive economic sanctions secured by the Clause is, to repeat, both ‘fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty’ and ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.’”

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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