by Mark Horvit

On a typical Thursday in November, in a rural circuit court slightly northeast of Kansas City in Kingston, people trickle in and out of a largely empty courtroom.

They come for a variety of reasons: speeding tickets, driving without a license, car accidents and occasionally more serious crimes. But at the end of almost every case, the judge asks the same questions.

“How long do you think it’ll take you to pay?”

“What’s a reasonable amount for you to pay each month?”

The fees and fines imposed ranged from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand. Many of them promised to pay in time by mid-December, but that can be a hard promise to keep for those who are poor.

And when those fees aren’t paid off quickly, you’re ordered to show up in court again.

Whether they have been guilty of any past crimes is already determined. They were now all in court for the same crime: being too poor to pay for their jail time.

For many of them, the punishment is even more jail time and, as a result, an even higher board bill. In or out of jail, many remain imprisoned — by debt.

But such a situation, which tends to happen in rural areas, is being challenged in the courts themselves.

Six cases have been filed by public defender Matthew Mueller in all three Missouri appellate courts, all on behalf of clients who Mueller says should never have been charged in the first plaRichey watches people cross Main Street as he waits for the post office to open so he can mail letters to a friend. While living in Appleton City, he has been unable to receive bills that have been sent to his son’s house in Warrensburg. Later in the day, Richey received two calls regarding missed payments on bills he had not yet seen.

Other solutions that will help combat this problem are in the works in some Missouri jurisdictions, by lawmakers in Jefferson City and in other states. In some cases, those efforts focus on the cost of running crowded jails, which is a main driver behind these charges.

A nationwide problem

Forcing the incarcerated to pay for their own incarceration is not unique to Missouri.

According to a 2015 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 43 states charge “pay to stay” fees, which are essentially board bills. About a third of U.S. counties charge room-and-board fees at the local level as well.

Sometimes, such board fees are voluntary. In parts of California, for instance, an inmate is offered to upgrade to more comfortable jails at a cost per day. But for most who are poor, fees are slapped onto them.

Neither is the issue a new one. In 1983, the case Bearden v. Georgia went up to the U.S. Supreme Court because many people were being put in jail or in debtor’s prisons for failing to pay court fees and fines.

Missouri’s county jails are no exception. Of the 114 counties, only seven in fiscal year 2017 did not collect any money related to board bills, according to figures from the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator. The total amount from all counties that year in board bill disbursements was near $4.7 million.

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