Bail reform laws in Missouri went into effect last summer, and some state legislators aren’t convinced that the policy changes have been in the best interest of the public, prompting more than 80 lawmakers to sign a letter delivered to the Missouri Supreme Court demanding the new laws be rescinded.
The reformed rules took effect on July 1, and require judges to consider non-monetary conditions when deciding the pretrial fate of those charged with a crime. A monetary amount can still be set after a judge has first considered the non-monetary options. However, the monetary bail cannot exceed that which is needed to ensure public safety reasonably and ensure the defendant will appear back in court.
In the seven months since the changes, some state representatives have heard concerns from constituents and court officials who say they see the bail reforms creating a “catch-and-release” pretrial process, potentially allowing dangerous individuals to commit more crimes while awaiting trial in other cases.
State Rep. Dale Wright, R-Farmington, is among the state representatives calling on the Supreme Court to address issues with the bail laws.
“Some of us put our name on this paper, letting [the Supreme Court] know that we’re very concerned,” said Wright. “There’s been some defendants that have reportedly committed some pretty heinous acts after being released from the criminal courts without even having to post bail.”
Wright said he was made aware of a notable case from Kansas City and believed that case, along with similar situations, was one of the driving factors bringing legislators to the point of calling on the court for action.
The particular case Wright was referring to involved Javier Alatorre, the alleged gunman in October’s deadly rampage at Kansas City’s Tequila KC Bar. Alatorre has a criminal record, which includes charges of resisting arrest and fleeing from police. He was arrested in Jackson County on a variety of charges a few weeks before the massacre but was ordered to be released from jail on his own recognizance under the new rules.
“One thing that we’ve been trying to do [in the legislature] is help some of the people who are in the state’s prisons shorten their time if they’re not convicted of serious crimes and to be released as working individuals,” said Wright. “When it comes to criminals that are accused of very serious crimes, — first of all, you should be required to post bail to get out, and you should also have some sort of monitoring if that does happen.
“Well, evidently, that’s not happening all the time,” he said. “There are some serious crimes going on, and then the people are brought in before being turned loose without even having to post bail at all.”
Prior court rules directed judges to impose bail only to ensure that defendants returned to court. However, the Missouri Constitution gave judges leeway to deny bail or set limits on release as a way to protect victims or ensure public safety.
Thoughts on the matter seem consistent among local legislators.
Although Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis, was not able to sign the letter headed to the court last week, she said that she certainly would have.
“I spoke with the representative who started the letter...,” Dinkins said. “He said it was signed on the winter snow day where we all left early, and he just grabbed whoever he could, but I do support what they’re doing.”
Dinkins recalled that as recently as last Tuesday, she had a few constituent bail bondsmen come to her office, advocating for some changes to get the laws restored to what they originally were.
“The current system is not working and we need to do something to get it fixed,” she added. “I pity those that are trying to work with what they have. I’ve spoken with judges, prosecuting attorneys, and bail bondsmen, and it doesn’t seem that anybody feels like [the bail law reform] is working like it was supposed to work.”
Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, said he too would have signed the letter if he could have.
“I didn’t sign the letter, but I would have,” explained Henderson. “They just didn’t get to everybody. I think they could have gotten a lot more signatures than what they did. It was kind of a last-minute thing, but everybody’s been kind of upset.
“I’ll be honest; I was all in favor when [the governor] said we need to be smarter on crime, and I agree with that,” Henderson said. “But when the Supreme Court redid the bail rules, they basically created law, in my opinion, instead of interpreting law which is what they’re supposed to do and consequently, I’ve had a lot of people in the district reach out to me about what they call catch-and-release.
“They catch people doing things and immediately they're back on the street with no real way of holding them accountable,” he said. “I just don’t see that as a smart way to deter crime in our communities.”
Henderson went on to say that he has no desire to see people locked up just because they’re poor. He said he would love to try to find a balance and make sure innocent families aren’t being destroyed by the legal process while, at the same time, protecting other families in St. Francois County.
It’s uncertain how the court will react to the call for changes from representatives, however, the forthright gesture of addressing the high court sent a message that a significant portion of Missourians don’t believe the new laws are working the way they were intended.
Wright echoed Henderson’s sentiments regarding the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.
“That’s not really [the Supreme Court’s] job,” said Wright, referring to the new policies which he believes effectively changes the law. “They don’t create the laws. They’re supposed to interpret the laws, so I think you’ll see some new legislation come out on this.”
Bobby Radford is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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