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Messenger: Two days after debtors prison ruling, Missouri judge tries to collect pay-to-stay bills

Messenger: Two days after debtors prison ruling, Missouri judge tries to collect pay-to-stay bills

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Caldwell County Courthouse

Caldwell County Courthouse

KINGSTON, Mo. • There has been a development, the judge said from his bench overlooking the second-floor courtroom in the Caldwell County seat. The defendant stood before him, the old wooden floor creaking beneath his shifting feet. The man was unable to make a payment on what he allegedly owed the court.

It was two days after the Missouri Supreme Court had ruled unanimously that judges in the state could no longer hold “payment review hearings” in an attempt to collect “board bills” given to defendants for their time in the county jail. Those bills are often several thousand dollars, but, the state’s high court said, they are not court costs and cannot be collected by the criminal courts.

Associate Circuit Court Judge Jason Kanoy held those hearings anyway on Thursday, under the watchful eye of Michael Barrett, head of the state public defender’s office, and Matthew Mueller, the senior bond litigation counsel for that office. Mueller is the lawyer who brought the appeals of two rural Missouri men that led to the Tuesday opinion being issued by the Missouri Supreme Court.

“There are a pile of cases where people owe us money,” Kanoy told the defendant, a painter, who said he was having a hard time finding work these days, “and I have to review them all.”

Money.

That is what this is about.

It’s a pay-to-stay system that has been ingrained in Missouri’s rural courts for decades. Pay the judge for your time in jail or he sends you to debtors prison.

Last year, Kanoy collected $149,877 this way, by requiring defendants — most of them poor — to come to court month after month, to make a payment toward their board bills or explain why they can’t. Kanoy collected more money per capita — $16.47 for every one of the 9,100 people who live in this tiny northwest Missouri farming community — than any judge in any Missouri county.

It was all done illegally, the Missouri Supreme Court said last week.

Such “debts cannot be taxed as court costs and the failure to pay that debt cannot result in another incarceration,” Judge Mary Russell wrote for the unanimous court. The court said that unpaid jail board debts should be sent to the Office of State Courts Administrator, which could seek to collect them through income tax intercepts, and that there should be no more payment review hearings.

Apparently, Kanoy didn’t get the message.

All three defendants who appeared before him on Thursday were told to come back in May for another payment review hearing. Each of them had previously been jailed for failure to pay board bills.

“It is going to take us a while to sift through things,” Kanoy told Jason Sharp, who has been attending such hearings since 2012 on a long-ago-disposed child support case.

“Our little chats won’t be happening anymore,” Kanoy told Sharp, as a result of the Missouri Supreme Court decision.

Sharp said he was happy that after May, it seems, he won’t have to come see the judge again.

“The judge can’t just keep putting people in these cycles where we’re back and back and back,” he said after the hearing. “I’m glad to see this is over and done.”

But it’s not really, and that’s a problem, said Barrett.

Most of the people who were scheduled for payment review hearings before Kanoy on Thursday didn’t show up. The way it works in Caldwell County and many other counties is that if you make a payment, you don’t have to go to court. So 26 people made payments to a court that has no legal right to collect them. Some of those people already have new hearings scheduled in May. If they owe any actual court costs, it is only because the court has been applying their previous payments to the board bills first, rather than the other court costs, which are generally minimal, such as a $10 fee for crime victims. Defendants were told they now owe their board bills to the Caldwell County Sheriff.

None of that should be happening, Barrett said.

“He should have canceled all of these hearings,” he said.

On Friday, Barrett sent a letter to Kanoy urging the judge to comply with the state Supreme Court decision and “stop using your court to leverage the freedom of poor persons in exchange for revenue for Caldwell County.”

Kanoy will likely get a chance soon to explain himself to the seven judges of the state’s high court. He is due there April 9 for arguments in a case brought by Mueller in which the public defender argues that Kanoy is violating constitutional protections against “double jeopardy” by jailing defendants more than once on contempt of court charges related to missing payment review hearings.

Perhaps a little chat with the justices of the Missouri Supreme Court will help the judge sift through things.

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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