Missouri sheriffs are pushing back against new court rules regarding bond, but some say they are playing on fear to protect financial interests.
The Missouri Supreme Court this year changed several rulesregarding the application of cash bail, citing a systematic bias against indigent defendants. The bail bond industry has challenged the changes and since their implementation July 1, two mid-Missouri sheriffs posted statements shared by the Missouri Sheriffs Association and several smaller law enforcement agencies opposing the new rules.
Missouri Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Kevin Merritt says sheriffs are speaking out because they are committed to upholding the rule of law and are concerned for citizens and crime victims in light of the changes.
“The rights of victims of crime and other law abiding citizens in general are being minimized by the progressive shift toward offender-centered programs aimed to reduce the incarceration rate, be it bond reform or changes in the parole violation process,” Merritt said. “Now more than ever, victims are more likely to see those who violated them out on the streets of the community.”
He adds that sheriffs understand people sometimes make bad decisions and deserve second chances, but those who continue to violate the law must be held accountable.
“The sheriffs of Missouri will continue to work to be a part of the solution reformists seek,” Merritt said. “What they will not do is compromise their commitment to the rule of law and to provide safer communities.”
Those skeptical of the sheriffs’ criticism note that jail inmates are a source of revenue from boarding fees, state reimbursement and surcharges on services provided to detainees.
Gillis Leonard is a mid-Missouri criminal defense attorney who serves clients facing bond issues on a regular basis. He said while he respects law enforcement and the role they serve, in this case it appears the posts are an effort to stoke fears to protect funding.
“You cannot separate the financial incentives from the political viewpoints,” Leonard said. “In some jails it is a good cash cow housing people and billing them $40 or $50 a day, as well as having a collect call system where people pay $5 a minute to talk to a loved one. A lot of times that goes back into the jail’s pocket, not the sheriff but the jail, so they can do more with their facility.”
On July 10, Moniteau County Sheriff Tony Wheatley posted on Facebook a “Letter from the Sheriff,” explaining what he dubs “Release on Recognizance” rules, which he claims will lead to criminals being back on the street immediately following arrest.
“They can then state that they cannot afford to bond out in the hearing and the judge has to release them ROR,” he writes. “ROR means Released on Recognizance and that means to release them from jail with a court date for them to show back up. The courts do have some lead way (sic) in certain cases and can impose a bond if it can be proven the defendant poses a substantial risk to the safety of the community or poses a high risk of not appearing in court.”
Wheatley on Thursday said the rule changes will lead to additional work for his department, because deputies must spend time finding people who fail to appear in court, traditionally the responsibility of bail bond agents.
“Most don’t have a steady address, so they will give their mom’s address or whatever address they are staying at that week,” Wheatley said. “Since they bond them out, usually our bondsmen take that responsibility. If they don’t show up at court, the bondsman has to produce them or pony up the cash for the bond. So the bondsmen around here keep a pretty close tab on these people.”
Wheatley said the changes have resulted in additional court hearings, which in turn have required additional expenditures for court security. He said he knows of no cases in Moniteau County where someone was detained pretrial for an extended amount of time because of an inability to pay.
He says, however, since the new rules went into effect, one woman was arrested on drug charges, released on recognizance and arrested again 24 hours later on a drug trafficking charge.
“Which, I know even if they bond out they are going to do that too,” Wheatley said.
Callaway County Sheriff Clay Chism, who did not respond to a request for comment, also indicated in a Facebook post that criminals would be put right back on the streets. His post was shared by several agencies, including Ashland and Centralia police and the Audrain County Sheriff’s Department.
“How does this affect our county’s hardworking, tax paying citizens?” Chism asks rhetorically. “If you are the victim of a crime such as burglary, theft, property damage, or forgery, the list goes on and on, and the offender is arrested, there is a distinct possibility the offender will be released with a summons as opposed to a warrant being issued and the defendant being required to post a monetary bond.”
“Our extreme effort to combat drug offenses, which I know drives so many other crimes in the county, will definitely be affected by this change,” he adds.
Peggy Placier is a volunteer and organizer for a community bail fund started in March in Boone County by social-equity group Race Matters, Friends to counter the effects of the cash bail system on indigent, non-violent offenders. The non-profit bail fund has bonded 23 people since its inception, all of whom have made their appearance, she noted.
“The people we bond out are not a danger to the community and they are not fleeing, so if that was the purpose of bail, then we don’t need it,” Placier said.
The sheriffs, in their recent statements, also seem to forget that the vast majority of people in jail have not been convicted, Placier said.
“The Callaway sheriff talks about charges as if somebody is already guilty, which is a giant problem for law enforcement if they are doing that,” Placier said. “Even if he wants to go there, people with enough money have been able to bond out for a long time. Somebody without money with a minor charge which they have not been proven guilty of might sit in jail for days, weeks, whatever because they cannot afford to pay a bail bond company or have the resources to pay the bail.”
Leonard said it is possible some in law enforcement are misinterpreting the intent of the new rules and how the changes are to be applied, but it’s more likely they are simply stirring the pot on social media to garner support.
“You remind people of a nicer, quieter time, like in Mayberry, and say hey, you are getting ready to have that ripped out from under you,” Leonard said. “Next thing you know you will have to bolt your doors and put locks on your kids. It’s a universal political truism — fear equals money.”
By Pat Pratt | Columbia Tribune