Bob Bruchsaler, who is in charge of pretrial services through the State of Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator, talks to a group of Christian County officials that Judge Laura Johnson gathered to form a Criminal Justice Administration Committee.

 

There are people sitting in the Christian County Jail who simply can’t afford the bond. They are not considered a danger to themselves or others. However, they have been accused of a crime and they cannot bond out, so they sit in jail, waiting for their day in court.

“Several circuits in the state have developed pretrial release programs,” Circuit Judge Laura Johnson said. “These programs evaluate and recommend inmates for pretrial release with added supervision rather than holding these inmates in custody.”

Whether the county should consider offering pretrial services is why Johnson formed a Criminal Justice Administration Committee, comprised of judges in the 38th Circuit, a representative from probation and parole, defense attorneys, Western Associate Commissioner Hosea Bilyeu and law enforcement from the Christian County Sheriff’s Office, Ozark Police Department and Nixa Police Department.

“I think the court should be in a continuous process of improvements,” Johnson told the group during its first meeting. “I want to know whether or not Christian County is interested in pretrial programs … I’m not advocating for it and I’m not saying we should have it. I think we should all sit down at the table with an open mind.”

And that’s exactly what happened over the course of the two-hour meeting. The group talked about bonds, the high jail population and the pros and cons to offering pretrial services.

“My primary motivation for considering this program would be to reduce the numbers in our jail, which we all know have reached critical numbers. And, hopefully, result in some savings to the county, as well, that might help offset whatever additional cost,” Johnson said.

Jail Division Capt. Richard Ramage said the jail only has 99 beds. However, the count in the jail at that time was 135.

“Statistics since last January, our highest number being at 182 — that’s pretty critical,” he said. “When we had 160 in the jail, that’s when I had two officers assaulted by inmates. When numbers are high, tension is high. I work short-staffed most the time.”

The lowest number of inmates the jail has seen since January is 128.

“At 175 we house out inmates. That’s $45 a day,” Ramage said.

And while the CCSO often hear people complain that the county jail houses federal and immigration inmates — it’s keeping the sheriff’s budget afloat.

“That pays the county $64.50 a day. That helps offset the sheriff’s budget,” Ramage said. “If we didn’t have those inmates helping offset those costs, the county and the sheriff would be in a bind to have their daily operations.”

Prosecutor Amy Fite also shared statistics, saying that felony cases increased from 571 in 2015 to 867 in 2016.

“We’re all here because we want to keep the community safe and we want the people of Christian County feeling like they live in a safe community,” Johnson said. “We also have to balance that with a jail that is severely overcrowded … With supervision, maybe some of them can be released.”

Bob Bruchsaler, who oversees pretrial services through the State of Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator, said pretrial services boils down to three things: Maximizing public safety, maximizing release and maximizing court appearance rate.

“We are not talking about letting the worst of the worst out of jail — that’s what jails are for,” he said. “If they bond, they are more likely to recidivate, more likely to not show up for court … it just exponentially gets worse as time goes on.”

Bruchsaler reviewed information with the group, and left them each with a stack of papers and a thumb drive with more information.

While pretrial services would be new to Christian County, it’s certainly not a new idea. Greene County offers pretrial services. According to its program, Greene County Pretrial Services “operates a safe, fair and effective system that maximizes public safety and court appearances, while ensuring appropriate use of release, supervision and detention. We assist Greene County judges in reaching pretrial release decisions that reasonably assure defendants will return to court, while affording defendants the opportunity required by law to await trial under the least restrictive conditions.”

Bruchsaler said, statistically, it’s safer to have someone charged with a crime out on pretrial services than on a money bond.

“Money bail does not protect public safety,” he said. “Studies show that money bail discriminates against indigent defendants.”

Johnson agreed, saying that she feels pretrial services protects the community more effectively because defendants are supervised.

“If we stop looking at this as just a means of possibly reducing jail population, but if we … don’t give this defendant bond and instead think, ‘I’m going to put this defendant on pretrial service’ — that’s a better level of supervision,” she said. “You’re improving public safety.”

Bilyeu said while he commends the group for working to find ways to reduce the jail population, his motivation in starting the program would be to provide better services to defendants.

“I am here because of the title of this one little booklet: Pretrial justice — that’s my motivator,” he said. “The motivation of pretrial justice has a greater shelf life.”

Johnson agreed.

“None of these people have been convicted yet of the crime of which they’re charged. They may have criminal histories, but as far as the crime of which they are charged, they are considered innocent,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of information to consider in that — that tends to get lost in the wash. I’m pleased to hear this could actually increase public safety by improving the supervision level of people released. There are a lot of angles beyond just the jail issue.”

At this time, a pretrial services program is just an idea for Christian County. Johnson said she plans to bring in guest speakers to the monthly meetings. And, eventually, the group will decide whether Christian County wants to move forward to establish a program. If that’s the case, the county would have to hire a pretrial supervisor.

“I’m not sitting here telling you that this is your Band-Aid to fix your jail, because it all depends on you guys,” Bruchsaler said. “It’s a cultural shift you’ll have to make on every level, from the bench to the prosecutor to law enforcement.”

By Amelia Wigton | Christian County Headliner