The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that local courts can’t throw people back in jail for not paying previous jail debts, a practice that critics said led to modern-day debtors’ prisons.
At issue are boarding costs for time spent in county jails, which are commonly referred to as board bills. Judges wrote in a unanimous decision that while inmates are responsible for those costs, “if such responsibilities fall delinquent, the debts cannot be taxed as court costs and the failure to pay that debt cannot result in another incarceration.”
The ruling was lauded by critics of the policy including Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who in a statement said Missourians “shouldn’t be forced into a cycle of incarceration and used as an ATM simply for being unable to pay jail debts.”
ACLU of Missouri Legal Director Tony Rothert praised judges for reaffirming that “people cannot be imprisoned for being poor.”
“We know several counties have abused the court process for years to lock up Missourians because they could not afford their freedom,” Rothert said in a statement. “That ends today.”
The case stems from two Missouri men who fell behind on paying the cost of their own imprisonment in county jail and were ordered to return to court repeatedly regarding their bills.
One of the men, George Richey, was ordered to pay $3,150 after serving time in the St. Clair County jail for violating an order of protection. When he didn’t pay, he was sent back to jail for another 65 days and charged another $2,275.
Judges in the decision wrote that the lower courts were wrong to intervene because “express statutory authority permitting jail board bills to be taxed as court costs does not exist.”
“The courts should not have required them to repeatedly appear to account for debts the courts could not legally designate as court costs, and, in Richey’s case, the circuit court should not have sent him back to jail for failing to make those payments,” judges wrote in the ruling.
Attorney Josh Jones defended the practice in court proceedings. On Tuesday, he said the ruling could mean taxpayers shoulder more of the burden for county jail costs.
“The practical reality is it’s going to reduce the amount paid by the people that actually committed the offenses, and practically it’s going to increase the amount paid by taxpayers for feeding and housing prisoners,” Jones said.