The Legislature has approved bipartisan legislation that would keep Missourians from being put back in jail for failing to pay the costs of being put in jail; and would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 192 aims to end charging prisoners board bills” for their stays in jail.  Persons who don’t pay those bills can be required to come to a “show-cause” hearing and risk additional jail time.  Lawmakers said this amounted to putting people in a “debtor’s prison.”

The bill would allow counties to seek to collect jail bills through civil means, with no threat of jail time.  The House’s 138-11 vote on Monday sends that bill to Governor Mike Parson (R).

Bill sponsor Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield) worked closely with Liberty Democrat Mark Ellebracht on the legislation.  DeGroot said current law is putting Missourians who’ve committed minor crimes and who can’t afford to pay fines and boarding costs back in jail, where they only incur more boarding costs.

“The people who don’t pay their fines and court costs who got put in jail because they couldn’t afford to bond themselves out, and now all of a sudden they owe $1300 for their week in jail and fines and court costs, and then they come before the judge and the judge says, ‘You owe $1300,’ and they say, ‘I don’t have it,’ and he says, ‘Fine, come on back next month and have at least $100,’ so they come on back the next month and they don’t have it and the judge puts them in jail, or they don’t show because they can’t get a babysitter or they can’t get off work, or they do get off work and they get fired,” said DeGroot.

DeGroot said in one case, a woman who stole an $8 tube of mascara incurred more than $10,000 in “board bills.”

Representative Mark Ellebracht (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Ellebracht said the legislation is proof that opposing parties who often vehemently disagree can come together to do good things.

“We worked well together on this issue because we worked as colleagues and we respected each other’s opinion, and we made what I regard as a very, very good bill, and we are correcting a problem that a lot of people face in the State of Missouri,” said Ellebracht.

The Senate added to HB 192 legislation to allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for non-violent offenders who meet certain criteria.  That was the goal of House Bill 113, which the House passed in February, 140-17.

It was sponsored by Carthage Republican Cody Smith.

“It’s been shown in other red states like Texas and Oklahoma that if we change the way we treat folks – non-violent offenders – we can lead to better outcomes by keeping them out of prison, to the extent that that’s possible.  It leads to better outcomes in their lives, their families’ lives.  It leads to savings by not having people incarcerated in state prisons,” said Smith.

Springfield Republican Curtis Trent said both provisions speak to priorities that Governor Parson and Chief Justice Zel Fischer both spoke about when addressing the House and the Senate earlier this year.

“It’s a question of who we want in our prisons.  Do we want people in our prisons who are mainly a threat to themselves – they have poor judgement – or do we want people in there who are truly a threat to society, who are predators, who are going to victimize other people, not just for minor, monetary amounts, but in ways that are truly life-altering, and I think those are the people who we want to prioritize,” said Trent.

It’s now up to Governor Parson whether HB 192 becomes law.  If it does, it would take effect August 28.