By Associated Press - Tuesday, December 11, 2018

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - A Missouri appeals court has sided with a former county jail inmate over the way a court process was used to try to collect payment for his room and board while behind bars.

A Missouri Appeals Court’s Western District panel ruled Tuesday in favor of John Wright of Higginsville. The ruling follows extensive coverage of so-called “debtor’s prison” issues by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger .

Wright pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of stealing and resisting arrest in Lafayette County on July 27, 2016, and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Like many rural Missouri counties, Lafayette County requires inmates to repay jail-related costs. He was ordered to pay about $1,300, and required to appear in court monthly to review how he was repaying the money.

The appeals panel ruled that “nothing in (state law) provides specific authorization for the taxation of an unpaid board bill as a court cost.” The ruling prohibits judges from threatening defendants with jail time if they can’t afford to pay board bills.

Former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Mike Wolff, dean emeritus of the St. Louis University School of Law, said the ruling was “huge.”

“It’s very clear the court is treating board bills as a debt, which they clearly are,” Wolff said.

There is nothing in the state statute that allows defendants to be billed for jail time under a collection process operated through the court, Wright’s attorney, Matthew Mueller, argued. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in the case saying that the practice violates Missouri’s constitutional prohibition against jailing people for debt.

It wasn’t clear if Lafayette County would appeal. A message seeking comment from prosecuting attorney Kristen Ellis Hilbrenner, who represented the county in the case, was not immediately returned.


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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