Leanne Banderman stole nail polish.
It was two years ago in Dent County, Mo.
Banderman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for shoplifting the $24.29 product at a Walmart. Judge Brandi Baird sentenced her to 30 days in the county jail.
Then Baird sent Banderman a bill for $1,400.
This is the reality in rural Missouri if you're poor and find yourself crossways with the law. First you do time in jail because you can't afford bail, even on minor offenses. In many Missouri counties, more than 60 percent of people in prison are there on nonviolent offenses. Then you get a bill for your jail time.
Then things really get tough.
Banderman couldn't afford the "board bill" for her jail time.
So Baird put her in jail again.
This time the bill was $2,160.
For the past couple of years, I've been writing about this problem in St. Francois County, where Judge Sandra Martinez has been overturned twice by the Missouri Supreme Court for similar offenses. But the problem is much bigger than one county.
It's happening all over the state, says Matthew Mueller. He's the senior bond litigation counsel for the Missouri Public Defender's Office, and his primary job these days is filing lawsuits on behalf of poor people like Banderman who end up in jail because they're poor, and then the judicial system buries them in poverty even deeper than they imagined.
"The practical reality is that people are being arrested for being poor," Mueller says. "And there's nothing they can do about it. They just sit in jail and the bill keeps getting higher."
On Wednesday, Mueller was in Kansas City to ask the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals to find this practice unlawful.
The problem, Mueller says, isn't just that the rural counties are charging poor people for being in jail. It's that they're then treating that jail debt as a "fine" and using the county's arrest power when people can't afford to pay the fine.
Take John Wright, of Higginsville, Mueller's client in the Wednesday appeal.
Wright, who suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 19, was charged with stealing for failing to pay for a taxi ride in 2016. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail.
Upon being released, Wright was served with a $1,300 bill for his jail time. Every month thereafter, if the bill wasn't fully paid, the judge would schedule a show-cause hearing on the debt. If Wright didn't show up, a warrant would be issued for his arrest. The court never determined whether he had the ability to pay. Wright is indigent and was represented by the public defender.
It's a long-standing constitutional protection in U.S. courts that people can't be jailed for failure to pay debt. But whether it's municipal courts in St. Louis County stacking up traffic tickets, or rural counties issuing bills for jail time, the practice is still common in Missouri.
"This entire practice is unlawful and must cease," Mueller writes.
At some point, state lawmakers might want to pay attention to what's happening in the circuit courts in their jurisdictions. That's because in many of them, the counties are billing poor people for money they've already collected from the state.
Under state law, if a person is held in the county jail for a state felony, Missouri taxpayers end up paying about $22 a day of that bill. State law actually allows for more than twice that amount of payment, but the Legislature never provides full funding. Among the biggest recipients of that county money are those rural counties also known for taking extrajudicial steps to keep poor people in jail while they rack up higher costs.
In 2017, for instance, St. Francois County was reimbursed nearly $155,000 from the state for "board bill" costs. Franklin County took in $162,000; Caldwell collected $149,000; Camden and Laclede counties both topped $200,000. And in most of those counties, the people in jail were billed even after the state paid.
None of this is constitutional, Mueller says. He now has cases before all three appeals courts in the state seeking a determination that would put an end to this practice. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed briefs supporting Mueller's clients in all three cases.
"It's really scary what's going on," Mueller says. "It's indefinite commitment. These people are totally helpless. This has got to stop."
– Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.