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Effort to crack down on county 'debtors prisons' clears the Missouri House

Effort to crack down on county 'debtors prisons' clears the Missouri House

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JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri House on Monday gave near-unanimous approval to legislation that would forbid courts from threatening jail time if a defendant fails to pay “board bills” charged to them for previous stays in county jails.

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, allows counties to use civil means to collect jail debt, but counties would no longer be authorized to hang the threat of additional jail time over defendants for failure to pay.

In addition, the measure would do away with “show-cause” hearings in which defendants must report to a judge every month to give updates on efforts to pay down jail debt. If the person doesn’t show up to the hearing, a warrant is issued for their arrest.

Current state law allows judges to waive $10 in board bill expenses for each day someone spends in a county jail. DeGroot’s measure strikes that provision from Missouri law.

The measure advanced to the Senate on a 156-1 vote. Rep. Jeff Pogue, R-Salem, was the lone “no” vote.

The legislation’s passage follows months of reporting by Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger, who has documented board bill cases across the state.

In one instance, George Richey, of Appleton City, Mo., was charged a $3,150 “board bill” in 2015 after his 90-day stay in the St. Clair County jail.

He was convicted of a misdemeanor for violating a protective order. When he did not pay the board bill, Richey was re-arrested, and he received an additional $2,275 bill after serving more time in jail.

The Missouri Supreme Court heard Richey’s challenge to the bills last month.

The legislation is House Bill 192.

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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