Lawmakers aren’t shy about taking issue with judicial overreach. They do it so much that it’s hard to take these complaints seriously.
In the case of new rules that limit a judge’s ability to impose bail, the Missouri legislature is on solid ground. This is not a case of lawmakers crying wolf or trying to score tough-on-crime political points.
The rules in question took effect last summer, part of a Missouri Supreme Court effort to ensure that race or income status do not play an outsized role in determining whether someone sits in jail, awaiting trial. Though judges can set bail if needed, they are required to first consider nonmonetary conditions for pretrial release.
“Too many who are arrested cannot afford bail even for low-level sentences and remain in jail awaiting a hearing,” Missouri Supreme Court Judge Zel Fischer said in an address to the legislature this year. “Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs, cannot support their families and are more likely to re-offend.”
This is laudable sentiment, but the judge did not win over his audience. More than 80 lawmakers, including some from our area, signed a letter that calls on the court to rescind the new rules.
These lawmakers understand that this was not a technical tweak or a court’s interpretation of a law that passed the legislative process. It’s a significant change, imposed by the judicial branch, that disregards the interests of crime victims and communities.
A deadly shooting last fall laid bare some of the flaws. The alleged gunman who killed four people in a Kansas City-area bar last fall had been released from jail despite a record that included resisting arrest and fleeing police.
In Jefferson City, a hearing was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon on a House bill that would overturn the bail rules and require some kind of bond or other deposit if there’s a determination that the offender is unlikely to appear in court.
This proposal, from state Rep. Justin Hill, makes two reasonable assumptions about bail requirements. One is that the overriding factor should be a defendant’s likelihood to commit more crimes and follow the conditions imposed by a judge, regardless of socioeconomic factors. The other is that bail does more than punish poor defendants indiscriminately; it protects the neighborhoods — including low-income ones — that are at risk if someone who’s unlikely to appear in court is released on personal recognizance.
If lawmakers feel that the new bail rules don’t protect Missourians, then they have the right to take action. What’s more, they have an obligation to do something.