Crime

To fix inequality of cash bail, Missouri court makes new rules for jailing suspects

Missouri court officials have ordered new rules that should allow more people charged with crimes to be released from jail while their cases are pending.

Zel Fischer, chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, said this past week that the new rules were the result of a year-long study by experts from all areas of the criminal justice system.

“We all share a responsibility to protect the public — but we also have a responsibility to ensure those accused of crime are fairly treated according to the law, and not their pocketbooks,” Fischer said in his annual state of judiciary address to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly.

The decision comes as cash bail, and the unequal treatment criminal defendants experience because of it, has become a hot issue across the country.

Currently, Fischer said too many people are being held in pretrial detention on bail they can’t afford to pay for even low-level crimes.

“Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs, cannot support their families and are more likely to re-offend,” Fischer said.

The new rules are set to take effect July 1.

They will require judges to first consider non-monetary conditions of release and should only require money to be posted if it is necessary.

And if a monetary bond is set, it should be an amount “not exceeding that necessary to ensure safety or the defendant’s appearance.”

Before ordering any payment, judges will have to first consider how to minimize or waive the costs.

“A court may order a defendant’s pretrial detention only if it determines — by clear and convincing evidence — that no combination of non-monetary and monetary conditions will ensure safety of the community or any person,” Fischer said.

Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri Public Defender System, said that unfortunately, many judges don’t follow the rules as they are currently set.

“Reform efforts would be uplifting if there was compliance by judges with existing laws,” Barrett said. “If there was, jails throughout the state would not be filled with non-violent poor persons who have not yet been convicted of anything.”

Barrett used the analogy of a gas station bathroom key attached to a larger object to describe the purpose of bond.

“It’s to ensure you come back,” he said. “Instead, courts are setting bond so high that poor defendants are unable to secure their release.”

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd said it is “vital” to ensure public safety and ensure that defendants appear in court.

“At the same time, it is wrong to hold people in jail for nonviolent crimes solely because they cannot afford bail,” he said.

But in implementing the new rules, Zahnd said the state needs to make sure there is adequate funding.

“As we move forward to implement the Supreme Court’s new rules, it will be very important for the state of Missouri to provide counties sufficient resources to provide pretrial services and supervision to defendants who are not in custody prior to trial,” he said.

Tony Rizzo covers federal and state courts for The Kansas City Star, where he has been a reporter for more than 30 years. He is a Kansas City native and veteran of the U.S. Army.
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