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JEFFERSON CITY — Local courts across Missouri no longer will be allowed to put people behind bars for failing to pay previous jail debts.

Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday signed House Bill 192, a measure that does away with hearings at which defendants must explain to a judge why they should not be locked up for failure to pay jail “board bills.” Those bills charge for the cost of imprisonment and can total thousands of dollars.

In some Missouri courts, if defendants did not show up at those hearings, or failed to make payments on their jail debt, they risked reincarceration — and additional jail bills — even after fulfilling their original sentence.

The practice persisted in some local courts, even after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in March that board bills could not treated as court costs under state law, “and the failure to pay that debt cannot result in another incarceration.”

Parson’s signature means state statute will now align with case law. Starting Aug. 28, jailers will be required to go through a civil-collection process to collect board bills.

“As a former sheriff and law enforcement officer, I understand the challenges facing those working within the criminal justice system, and we have to do a better job,” Parson, a Republican, said in a statement.

The practice of jailing people who didn’t pay their board bills was exposed in a series of columns last year by Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger.

He wrote about Cory Booth, of Breckenridge, Mo., in rural Caldwell County, who stole a lawnmower in high school, pleaded guilty and was given a suspended sentence. He violated his probation three times, and returned to jail for various stints, including a yearlong sentence after a third probation violation.

Eleven years after he was first arrested, Booth was still showing up to court monthly. A judge had threatened additional jail time if he didn’t show up, or didn’t make payments on his debt, which reached as high as $7,325, Messenger reported.

Booth had to explain to Caldwell County Associate Circuit Judge Jason Kanoy every time he couldn’t make a $50 monthly payment.

Some months, Booth said, “It’s groceries or pay the judge.”

Messenger also wrote about Brooke Bergen, of Salem, Mo., who pleaded guilty to shoplifting after stealing an $8 tube of mascara from Walmart. She got probation, but had to submit to twice-weekly drug tests that cost her $30 a week.

When Bergen did not answer a call from Lisa Blackwell, who was administering the drug tests, Bergen spent a year in jail. When she was released, Bergen was given a $15,900 bill.

Messenger’s writing shook the halls of power in Jefferson City.

In February, the state Supreme Court heard challenges to board bills from two men Messenger had profiled.

In one case, George Richey, of Appleton City, Mo., in St. Clair County, was jailed over a $3,150 board bill stemming from his 90-day stay in the county jail. He originally had been jailed after a misdemeanor conviction of violating a protective order.

Richey received an additional $2,275 bill after serving more time in jail.

In the second case, John Wright, of Higginsville, Mo., was charged $1,360 for his 90-day stay in the Lafayette County Jail. He had pleaded guilty to stealing and resisting arrest, according to court documents.

Wright was ordered to attend monthly status hearings and has not served time for failure to pay.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in March that lower courts were wrong to require defendants to return to court every month for hearings.

“The courts should not have required them (Wright and Richey) to repeatedly appear to account for debts the courts could not legally designate as court costs, and, in Richey’s case, the circuit court should not have sent him back to jail for failing to make those payments,” the court said.

The court said that both men were responsible for their original jail bills, but the court waived the additional $2,275 charged to Richey after his second stay in jail.

The changes will likely affect cash flow in many rural counties, which will have to readjust to new collection methods.

“It’ll be a big hit to them,” Matthew Mueller, a public defender who had argued against the practice, said in March. “Assume for example that you have 100 defendants in a particular county who are paying $10 per month toward a $6,000 board bill. Courts can no longer count on that $10 payment from all of those 100 people.”

Messenger in April won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his series of columns.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, proposed House Bill 192 after reading Messenger’s dispatches.

A bipartisan coalition was pushing to get the legislation to Parson’s desk, which effectively puts the Supreme Court’s decision in statute.

The Missouri House in May sent the measure to Parson, a Republican, on a 138-11 vote.

Other new laws

Parson on Tuesday took action on a number of other proposals, as well.

Among them, the governor signed House Bill 243, designed to ensure victims of domestic violence have a safe place to live.

Under the new law, landlords would be prohibited from evicting anyone who is a victim or is in imminent danger of being victimized. It also requires landlords to let domestic violence victims break their leases if they can show proof of being harmed, through a police report.

The measure, which was sponsored by Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron, was approved by wide margins in both the Senate and the House.

Parson signed Senate Bill 1, which adds stealing, forgery, fraud and several other nonviolent offenses to the list of crimes that qualify for expungement.

The measure does not change the law barring violent crimes like sexual assault or domestic violence from being expunged.

The legislation comes three years after lawmakers approved a more sweeping law allowing people to seek expungements for a host of other nonviolent felony and misdemeanor crimes as way to assist people who were having trouble getting jobs or finding housing because of old criminal records.

Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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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