Gov. Mike Parson’s signature this week makes it official: Municipal courts in Missouri will no longer be allowed to treat poor defendants like ATMs, tapping them for money in a cycle of imprisonment and fees without end. It’s been five years since the Ferguson protests first spotlighted this predatory scheme against some of our most vulnerable citizens, by the very officials who were supposed to be protecting the public. This law is long, long overdue.
The fact that the practice has continued in some courts even after post-Ferguson media coverage exposed it repeatedly around the state — and even after the Missouri Supreme Court condemned it this year — speaks to how determined some public officials have been in trying to keep this profitable con game going. Vigilance in enforcing this new law will be crucial going forward.
The immediate impetus for the eruption of angry protests in Ferguson in 2014 was, of course, the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer in August of that year. But a 2015 U.S. Justice Department report concluded that the community’s simmering anger had older, deeper roots, involving the abuse of low-income African Americans by a mostly white criminal justice system. These included the outrageous practice of jailing defendants for failing to pay fines on minor offenses — including traffic infractions that, in themselves, aren’t jailable crimes — and then piling on more fines.
The findings spurred further reporting by Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger, who uncovered similar abuses in local court systems across Missouri, some with an added twist: Defendants who were jailed for minor infractions or failure to pay fines would rack up additional fees while in jail — “board bills,” meant to cover the costs of their imprisonment — then would be re-imprisoned for failing to pay those fees. Some ended up serving multiple jail stints and owing thousands of dollars on minor original offenses. One woman who shoplifted an $8 tube of mascara ended up with a $15,900 debt to the court.
Messenger’s columns, which won a Pulitzer Prize this year, spurred the Legislature to pass House Bill 192, ending the practice of threatening defendants with additional jail time for failing to pay their board bills. The legislation, which Parson signed Tuesday, sets into law the state Supreme Court’s ruling in March that failure to pay board bills “cannot result in another incarceration.”
As Messenger reported in May, some officials have nonetheless continued treating board bills as court costs, attempting to collect them from the bench, which violates the Supreme Court’s ruling. As of Aug. 28, it will also become a violation of the new state law. Local court officials should be on notice that, unlike the pre-Ferguson days, the press and the public are now wise to this scam and will be watching for it.