JEFFERSON CITY — After years of trying, the state’s sheriffs are celebrating passage of legislation allowing judges to make criminals pay money into local law enforcement funds.
A similar measure also passed last year but was vetoed by Gov. Bob Holden because of constitutional concerns. This year, supporters think they have found the proper wording to find acceptance from the governor and to withstand a constitutional challenge.
The “County Law Enforcement Restitution Fund” is included in a larger crime bill that passed in the final week of the legislative session, which concluded Friday.
Holden mentioned the restitution fund among his highlights during a post-session news conference.
Last year’s version would have allowed judges to order payment into a “county crime-reduction fund.” But Holden said it was unconstitutional because court fines are supposed to go to schools.
The key change in this year’s version is that the court-ordered payment is described as “restitution” — an attempt to avoid any interpretation that it is a fine.
Under the bill, counties would first need to create a fund, then judges in those counties could order certain criminals to pay up to $300 per offense into the fund. The money could be used for law enforcement needs such as training and equipment, or a prosecutor’s costs for criminal investigations and prosecutions.
Payment into the fund would be at a judge’s discretion and could be another condition of probation or a suspended sentence. People convicted of infractions, minor crimes — misdemeanors with sentences of not more than 15 days in jail or a $300 fine — or traffic offenses could not be made to pay into the fund.
“Some of these counties have really been strapped with their money for law enforcement. With the problem of methamphetamine, it’s really taxed some of their budgets,” said Rep. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, who pushed for the legislation.
Mayer said some counties had such funds several years ago but were advised to give up the practice because there was no specific state law authorizing it.
Betsy Morgan, a lobbyist for the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association, said Monday that sheriffs are glad the measure is headed toward becoming law. She said it’s hard to know how much money the funds would collect, but estimated a few thousand dollars per participating county. Legislative research staff also said the fiscal impact is unknown.
“The county budgets have been down much like the state budgets are,” she said. “This was a way to help them get money to go after those criminals and do the things they need to do to prosecute crimes.”
The fund would have to supplement, not replace, sheriffs’ office budgets from counties.