Missouri is engaged in a war of responsibility. Our justice system is the battleground and the fundamentals of our criminal justice system are at stake. Led by the Missouri Supreme Court, advocates who believe that social activism is an ultimate goal are locked in a fight with the judges, prosecutors and local law enforcement doing all they can to protect our society.
In 2019, the state’s High Court enacted major changes to the Missouri penal system that effectively tied the hands of judges to use their discretion in bail. The consequences were serious, the defendants who were charged with crimes including theft, assault and even murder, were released on their own accord. Their criminal history is no longer a determining factor for interim release. Moreover, once back in society, these individuals have no reason to tone down their behavior because they are fully aware that there is no penalty for their actions.
Last January, 82 Missouri lawmakers signed a letter to the state Supreme Court denouncing their unilateral action and urging it to repeal the new rules. This followed numerous reports of defendants charged with heinous crimes following their release from court-ordered prison without the need to post bail.
The right to bail is guaranteed in our federal and state constitutions. Commercial bail has been effective and is an integral part of our justice system because, in a typical situation, after an accused is arrested and charged, he or she is detained pending trial. They are released on condition that they appear at all mandatory court appearances. In order to compel them to obey, a judge will set a bond proportional to the crime they allegedly committed, while taking into account other factors, including criminal history. In most cases, a family member, friend or salesperson will post the bond which will allow them to be released. This part of the process is key to knowing why it works. The defendant is obligated to the person – be it brother, sister, wife or slave – to bail them out. They are responsible for it. If they don’t show up to court, they have to hold the bag, so to speak.
No other form of interim release has this key characteristic: accountability. Personal surety bonds or GPS-based ankle monitors are woefully ineffective, with a non-appearance rate of over 50 percent. Not only that, defendants with a history of domestic violence are often released on the same day, thus exposing vulnerable partners and family members to possible attack. There is a growing list of innocent individuals who have been assaulted and even murdered by defendants on bail.
Through the 2019 Missouri Supreme Court actions, the public lost confidence in the very criminal justice system that should protect them. But it is not too late to correct the problem. Commercial bail has never been the problem it was claimed to be, but has always been a key part of the safe, effective and fair means by which individuals are released pending trial. With the encouragement of our elected officials, law enforcement and judges, the court must be brought to face the fact that they made a huge mistake when they implemented its new release rules under bail. The time is long past to reverse their dire public policy and restore accountability to the Missouri criminal justice system.
Larry Newman is the president of the Missouri Alliance of Professional Bail Bond Agents.