JEFFERSON CITY — The contentious debate over debtors prisons in Missouri has reached a critical point as the state Supreme Court weighs a case and the House adopted a related bill Wednesday.
On Feb. 6, the Missouri Supreme Court heard State of Missouri v. George Richey. The case involves Richey’s two-month incarceration after he failed to pay over $3,000 in debts that were incurred during a previous 90-day misdemeanor sentence. He amassed additional debt during that subsequent stay.
Meanwhile, at the Capitol, legislation to make such an event unlawful has quickly moved through the House of Representatives, receiving initial approval Wednesday. House Bill 192, sponsored by Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, ensures that someone’s failure to pay the debts, known officially as “board bills,” cannot be the sole cause of further incarceration.
DeGroot, a defense attorney, has seen these hearings happen.
“We’ve seen people not being able to show up for a variety of reasons and then having warrants for their arrests issued,” he said. “It never sat very well with me.”
This was exactly the case of George Richey, who has a monthly disability income of $630 and couldn’t keep up with payments the court was requiring. He expressed his frustration when the Missourian spoke with him last November.
“When you’re on a fixed income, that’s pretty hard on your budget,” he said in November. “They just keep hounding me for the money.”
Richey was originally charged with a $3,150 board bill after his incarceration in 2015. He had made progress in paying it off by 2016 but was incarcerated again for not paying all of it and was then charged an additional $2,275 for that subsequent jail time.
Missouri public defender Matthew Mueller, Richey’s attorney, argued Richey’s case to the Supreme Court, stating that the courts had no statutory authority to arrest or incarcerate for these board bills.
“By having (the courts) directly collect these costs, they are able to coerce payment through the threat of contempt and incarceration,” Mueller said. “In fact, we’ve seen a number of our clients arrested and incarcerated for not paying these costs.”
That’s not how the procedure is supposed to go, according to Mueller. The court must refer the board bills to the Office of State Courts Administrator for collection. That office is allowed to collect the bills in one of two ways, Mueller says: through intercepting taxes or lottery prize winnings.
“They cannot arrest people or threaten them with contempt for not paying,” Mueller said.
Mueller argued that Richey was jailed because he was unable to pay. Mueller referenced the bond they put on Richey upon his second arrest.
“He sat in jail for about two months, and he sat in jail because he was poor — too poor to pay these court costs,” Mueller said during his argument. “And we know that because in the warrant that was issued for his arrest for failure to pay, the bond was set in the amount of the outstanding court costs.”
While Mueller and Richey wait for the Supreme Court’s decision, DeGroot and other lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, are rallying behind the bill, pushing it quickly through the House.
Regardless of the outcome of the court case, DeGroot said, he believes the legislation is important.
“(The courts) are making these people take time off work, get babysitters, and getting them thrown back in jail where they incur more costs,” DeGroot said.
After being unanimously passed through committee, the bill sparked conversation on the floor. After clarifying that board bills did not qualify as either “court costs” or “fines,” Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, who helped write the bill, expressed his support and clarified the definition of board bills, explaining their separation from court costs and fines.
The bill received strong support through a voice vote and will have a final vote in the House and then move to the Senate.