Missouri House moves to tighten bail rules

By SUMMER BALLENTINE Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House on Wednesday took a step toward undoing state Supreme Court changes to bail rules aimed at reducing court costs that can sometimes derail the lives of low-income defendants.

Lawmakers in a voice vote gave initial approval to a bill that would make public safety the top priority for judges to consider when setting bail. A final House vote could come as early as Thursday.

Republican Rep. Justin Hill's bill is in response to new court rules enacted by the Supreme Court in 2019 that required judges to first consider non-monetary conditions for pretrial release.

Primarily Republican lawmakers in a letter to the high court last year wrote that Supreme Court judges "overstepped" and asked them to rescind the rules, which hasn't happened. 

Hill said the changes have allowed potentially dangerous criminals to walk free before their trials.

"If this person is a danger to the community, then let's set a bail," Hill said. "We're not going to assume that everyone's going to come to court without posting some skin in the game."

His bill would require certain defendants to prove they're not a flight risk or a danger to the community in order to be released without paying bail. That provision would apply to people recently convicted of a felony or violent crime, people who have failed to show up to a court appearance at least once in the past three years, and people who have "committed continuing or severe acts of arson, rioting, or looting."

Judges are able to set bail if needed under the current court rules, but only at an amount necessary to ensure either public safety or that the defendant will appear in court.

The change was aimed at helping low-income defendants charged with low-level sentences who remain jailed because they cannot afford bail before they are tried and consequently face losing their jobs regardless of whether they're guilty. 

Republican and Democratic critics of Hill's bill said the purpose of bail is to incentivize defendants to show up for court hearings, not punish people before they're convicted. 

"When you start taking away someone's freedom, when ultimately they have not yet been convicted on this offense, that's a totally different area," O'Fallon Republican Rep. Tony Lovasco said. "Because ultimately people are entitled to a presumption of innocence."