JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri lawmaker wants to make convicted criminals pay the cost of their own prosecution and police investigation as a way to save money for cash-strapped cities and counties.
The legislation, which was taken up by a House committee this past week, would put a $300 cap on the costs for misdemeanor convictions and a $750 limit on felony cases, but prosecutors could ask for more by submitting supporting documentation to the judge presiding over the case.
Convicted defendants would be required to pay the investigation costs— regardless of their financial condition— or face additional jail time.
Sponsoring Rep. Don Ruzicka, R-Mount Vernon, said the police chief in his hometown had suggested the legislation to help offset policing costs there.
Mount Vernon Police Chief Garry Earnest said that a small number of people commit a large portion of the crime in most jurisdictions and therefore should pay most of the bill.
"We should let them (the criminals) pay for what they've done," he said.
Sheldon Lineback, the executive director of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, said police departments across the state are feeling strained because the demand for their services doesn't fluctuate like their funding.
"All the departments are tight at the budgets right now, and calls upon those resources are always abundant," he said.
Judiciary Committee members praised the measure's intent, but they questioned how cities, counties and the state would determine what an investigation costs — and whether any convicts could foot the bill.
Rep. Galen Higdon, R-St. Joseph, pointed out that the legislation allows convicts to be billed for time spent on the case by police officers, sheriff's deputies, prosecutors, the presiding judge and even fire department investigators in some arson cases.
"I applaud this bill," he said. "But where are we going to draw the line?"
An estimate included with the legislation could not forecast how much money the state might collect from defendants, but it projected the state would have to spend more than $220,000 hiring workers to process the paperwork.
There were also questions about the fairness of ordering a hefty fee on a person who has just been released from jail or prison.
MU law professor Rodney Uphoff, who did not testify in front of the committee, said convicts already face stiff challenges when they re-enter society and adding outstanding expenses such as an investigation bill might drive a person to commit new crimes.
"If we want to give people an honest chance to make something of their lives, we ought not make it so hard to do so effectively," said Uphoff, who has worked as a public defender in Wisconsin.
Other proposals moving through the Missouri legislature would reduce some costs for local law enforcement efforts through administrative fees or by sending defendants to treatment programs instead of prisons.
Jasper County Prosecutor Dean Dankelson, the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the group sees those proposals as more viable than charging for investigation costs.
One of the measures would add an administrative charge to all cases where a defendant pays restitution through the prosecutor's office. Currently, such a fee is only charged in cases where the defendant passed a bad check.
Dankelson said his office has one clerk that handles restitution for bad checks and another for all other cases. The current administrative fee offsets the cost of the former, but Dankelson said it would help counties if they could bring in revenue to pay for other workers.
Another bill backed by the prosecutors group would bring down the number of people in the criminal justice system by diverting some to treatment programs and changing some misdemeanors to be punishable only by a fine if the defendant is facing a first offense.
"We think we can do those things and save some money without impacting public safety," Dankelson said.