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Messenger: Time for Missouri's leaders to put the debtors' prison band back together

Messenger: Time for Missouri's leaders to put the debtors' prison band back together

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SALEM, Mo. • Amy Murr turned the tables on me.

We were sitting at J.B. Malone’s, a restaurant at the T intersection where Missouri Highway 72 heading southeast from Rolla runs into Highway 32. It’s a crossroads of sorts, which is where Murr’s life has been after several interactions with the law. Murr owns her bad decisions, but like many others in Dent County, she seems to be treated differently by a judicial system that looks down on those who are poor, or who have been caught up in the area’s rampant drug culture. Murr has been both of those things.

“Why are you doing this?” she asks me. Why are you writing about poor people, drug addicts and felons? Why are you telling stories about folks in rural towns all over the state who are having their civil rights trampled upon by local sheriffs and prosecutors and judges?

It’s the simple indignity of it all, I said.

Then I told her a story.

Many years ago, I got pulled over by police in the city where my daughter is now a cop. My tags were expired. The officer seemed to be taking a long time running my name and driver’s license through the computer. Another police car showed up. The officer took the slow walk back to my car. She asked me to get out of the vehicle. She cuffed me, put her hand on my head and lowered me into the back seat of her police cruiser.

It turns out I had forgotten about a speeding ticket from about a year before.

There was a warrant out for my arrest.

The officer asked if I had any cash for bail. It was the day after payday, and I had about $80. So that’s where she set my bail.

She took me to the police station, fingerprinted me, took my cash and let me go.

On that day, my kids were home alone, being watched by their oldest sibling.

Were I poor, and black and in north St. Louis County, things could have turned out so much worse.

Were I poor, and white and in rural Dent County, things could have turned out so much worse.

I didn’t spend the weekend in jail. Social services didn’t show up and take my children.

I paid for my mistake and moved on.

When I hear the stories of Murr, of Brooke Bergen and Leann Banderman, of Cory Booth and William Everts, of people who are jailed for minor offenses and forced by the courts to suffer consequences far worse than many of us would for the same mistakes, I think to myself: “There but by the grace of God go I.”

Three years ago, the governor, the Missouri Supreme Court and the Missouri Legislature realized that this sort of disparate treatment in the judicial system was a problem. As protesters and journalists and attorneys and law professors brought to light the abuses of municipal courts in St. Louis County, where poor defendants were, in effect, being jailed for an inability to afford traffic fines, the leaders in all three branches of Missouri government acted.

In her annual speech to the Legislature, Mary Russell, then chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, set the stage for what would be a year of reform:

“From a local municipal division to the state Supreme Court, Missouri’s courts should be open and accessible to all. Courts should primarily exist to help people resolve their legal disputes. If they serve, instead, as revenue generators for the municipality that selects and pays the court staff and judges — this creates at least a perception, if not a reality, of diminished judicial impartiality,” Russell said. “It is important to ensure that municipal divisions throughout the state are driven not by economics, but by notions of fairness under the rule of law. The Supreme Court is ready to work with you to ensure that people who appear in municipal courts are treated fairly and with respect.”

The court adopted new rules setting out parameters for municipal judges to operate more professionally and to take into account a defendant’s inability to pay. The Legislature passed a law reducing how much revenue cities could take in from court fines.

All along, unbeknownst to many, a similar problem — maybe worse in some cases — lurked in circuit courts throughout rural Missouri. There, in places like Dent and Crawford and St. Francois and Caldwell and Lafayette and many other counties, defendants are jailed with high cash bail that poor people can’t afford. They’re given a bill for those stays in jail, and they’re often jailed over and over on alleged violations of pretrial release conditions set by private probation companies that have an incentive to send their clients back behind bars.

Years after pleading guilty to relatively minor offenses, they still face penalties of jail, without legal representation, as judges bring them back each month to try to collect their debts.

A system that is still threatening a man with jail 11 years after he served his time for stealing a lawn mower at 17 isn’t just. A system that seeks $15,000 from a woman for her year-long jail sentence that was imposed after she stole an $8 tube of mascara is the very definition of a modern day debtors’ prison.

When Russell spoke at the opening of the 2015 legislative session, she quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in describing how a problem with one court in Missouri was a problem for the entire judicial system: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The garment of justice in Missouri is still terribly torn.

Who will fix it?

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