It has been clear to criminal justice advocates in Empower Missouri’s network for some time that poverty has been criminalized. Among the ways we have drawn attention to this topic were an April 2017 forum and a special Media Award to Tony Messenger in May 2018 for his series on policies that create debtors’ prisons, both events hosted by our St. Louis Chapter. The Kansas City Chapter also tackled the need for sentencing reform that addresses the criminalization of poverty at their March 2019 forum.
We were excited to see the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously rule on March 19 in Richey v. State of Missouri that courts have no legal authority to throw offenders back in jail, or threaten to do so, for being unable to pay “board bills” for past jail stays – meaning that the courts have no legal ground to stand on if they wish to keep someone incarcerated for not paying their court fees. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed an amicus brief (his first in office) in this case, stating there is no statutory authority to classify jail debts as court costs or fines.
The Supreme Court decision still needs to be codified into Missouri law, however, and HB 192, sponsored by Rep. Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield), aims to do just that. Empower Missouri testified in support of this bill on February 7 when it was heard in the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice and again on April 2 when it was heard in the Senate. Hopefully the Court decision, the Attorney General’s brief, and Rep. DeGroot’s legislation will rein in this abusive practice.
Now we have a second reason to celebrate. The Pulitzer Prizes for 2019 were awarded on April 15th, and St. Louis’s Tony Messenger won the Commentary category for his series on debtors’ prisons in Missouri. We extend our sincerest congratulations to Tony and the whole team at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In our congratulatory message to him, we asked him to be sure to display the Pulitzer next to our Media award, and he replied “You bet!”
We also must note that journalists like Tony gained insight into the injustices happening in municipal courts due to the Ferguson uprising and the many organizers who took action following the death of Michael Brown in August, 2014. In the words of Frederick Douglass (1857), “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
It is difficult to overstate the impact Tony’s series has had on not only the statewide conversation around debtors’ prison, but the concrete systemic changes that Missouri’s General assembly is working hard to pass. He will continue his work on the series, but the issue is far from resolved. Tony’s most recent article details how, despite the Supreme Court decision, some judges are still attempting to collect those fees. HB 192 is designed to stop this. It was voted Do Pass by the Senate Committee on Government Reform on April 11. We hope it will see floor debate soon!
We want you to know that you can make your voice heard on this issue! Use the Senate’s legislator lookup tool to find your senator. Let them know to vote YES on HB 192 when it comes forward for floor debate. Poverty is hard enough to survive; its harms should not be multiplied by criminalization.