For non-violent offenders, an arrest can start a downward spiral that relegates them to a future in jail.
The Cole County prosecutor and presiding circuit judge say they support changes that would break that cycle, pointing to reforms announced last week by the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court to keep people charged with non-violent crimes from having to spend long periods in jail — and, potentially, losing their livelihood due to high bail amounts.
In Chief Justice Zel Fischer's Jan. 17 State of the Judiciary speech, he noted these changes, which will take effect July 1, were the result of the Supreme Court bringing together judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law professors and court officials.
The changes were spelled out in a Dec. 18 Supreme Court order, requiring new language for the rules affecting probable cause statements, arrest warrants and procedures for court appearances.
The most important change, Fischer said, is courts must start with non-monetary conditions of release and may impose monetary conditions only if necessary and only in an amount not exceeding that necessary to ensure safety or the defendant's appearance.
"Too many Missourians who are arrested cannot afford bail even for low-level offenses and remain in jail awaiting a hearing," Fischer said. "Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs, cannot support their families and are more likely to re-offend."
Speaking to reporters during an annual meeting of the Missouri Press Association and Associated Press last week, Gov. Mike Parson said, "I was in law enforcement for over 20 years, and when you think of bonding, bonds are to make sure the person appears, not meant for punishment or to be a hardship on somebody.
"I don't have a problem with looking at the bonding, but it needs to go along with overall justice reform," Parson said.
Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson said the current bond structure has led to some "debtors' prison conditions."
"I believe we need to look at certain offenses where we could use a simple summons or low bond amounts," Thompson said. "We can alleviate pressure on individuals and pressure on jails so they have more room to keep folks who are dangerous and need to be incarcerated."
Among the crimes Thompson said he would consider for these approaches are misdemeanor marijuana possession, trespassing and certain traffic offenses such as driving while revoked or suspended.
"It is a tough call because every criminal case is different," Thompson said. "While someone commits a misdemeanor, the investigation may lead an officer to believe the person poses a danger and needs to be booked at a high amount."
Thompson noted the bond schedule is set by the judges.
"They have the final say," Thompson said. "When we believe a suspect is dangerous, we can request a higher bond, but not a certain amount. We'd make those requests for domestic violence cases and other crimes against people as well as some property crimes. In murder cases, no bond is requested, and a few other certain offenses have pre-set bonds. Under the current bond schedule, the lowest could be around $100."
Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce believes the county is well prepared for the changes due to its use of a pre-trial release program.
The pre-trial release program is designed to help judges determine which defendants should be bonded and supervised rather than jailed before a trial. Joyce said this has reduced costs and the number of prisoners housed in the Cole County Jail.
"We're able to make sure that the people, non-violent offenders, who will be released without a monetary bond will either be people assessed at some level for their risk and their needs," Joyce said. "The alternative would be just to say, 'If you've got enough money, you can get out of jail.'"
Joyce said, luckily with the pre-trial service, they go to the jail twice a week to see those who have not made a pre-set bond or haven't seen a judge and do a formal assessment and will look to see if there are other mechanisms to help these people.
"There's a lot of people who can't make any kind of bond, and they get into a cycle," Joyce said. "Their car breaks down, they can't make it to court, and they show up, and they're arrested. Then they have to pay a bondsman to get out, and something else happens to them.
"I think there is this knee-jerk reaction that people in authority think there's resources out there, and people are intentionally missing court when they should be using those resources."