Mo. sheriffs seek changes in bail, parole policies
The sheriffs argued community safety was in danger due to 'catch and release' practices by the Missouri Department of Corrections
By Pat Pratt
Kirksville Daily Express
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Sheriffs took their fight against recent criminal justice reforms to the state capitol Wednesday, arguing changes to bail rules by the Missouri Supreme Court and "catch and release" practices by the Missouri Department of Corrections are endangering the public.
Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish, president of the Missouri Sheriffs' Association, with 48 county sheriffs standing behind him in the House lounge, said 2019 was a violent year and the criminal justice system has become too "offender centered."
"Though not intended that way, some very well-intentioned people have become ultra-focused on the people committing the crimes, while not necessarily focusing on the neighborhoods they come to and the victims we are standing here fighting for," Parrish said.
State officials have had a greater voice in the General Assembly in recent years than law enforcement, he said.
The changes sheriffs object to include changes to bail rules by the Missouri Supreme Court, which went into effect in July.
In January, more than 80 state lawmakers sent a letter to judges denouncing the changes, which were implemented to reduce the number of people being held because they can't afford to pay for release before trial.
Johnson County Sheriff Scott Munsterman said drug crimes lead to many secondary crimes. The court-mandated reforms have put felony and repeat drug offenders back on the streets with only a citation.
"The summonses give them a court order to appear at a day and time and the individuals are not following through on the court date," Munsterman said. "Therefore the court turns around and issues a failure to appear warrant. We are bringing them in and releasing them back out into our communities because of these reforms."
Munsterman, when asked later, did not deny that would also be the case if those individuals had financial resources to post cash bail.
Rob Russell, Johnson County prosecutor and chair of the criminal justice task force that recommended the changes, said judges remain able to set substantial bail for defendants they feel are a danger to the community.
"Or hold them without bail," Russell said. "I guess I can't see the logic in how the bail rules put dangerous people on the street, when in fact if we as prosecutors show these people are dangerous, they are to be held without bail."
The committee studied the issue for two years with the association's past president, Webster County Sheriff Roye Cole, who was on the task force.
"So they had a seat at the table," Russell said.
The sheriffs also argued community safety was in danger due to policies set by the corrections department. Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott said law enforcement's hands were tied by not being able to recommend revocation of parole.
In one case, he said, a man took a probation and parole drug test and tested positive for methamphetamine and walked right back out the door.
"And into a vehicle and drove off," Arnott said. "This is a public safety issue. This is not our local probation and parole officers' fault. This comes down from leadership for this agency."
Arnott also blasted offenders allegedly receiving gas or food cards for making appointments, which he referred to as the "mom matrix."
"If an offender shows up for their mandated appointment, they can get a gift card for gas or food," Arnott said. "That is ridiculous. We have an adult criminal offender being rewarded for showing up on time.
"You know what their reward is? Not being locked in jail and not going to prison."
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann refuted the claims of the sheriffs that the agency was engaged in "catch and release" practices.
She provided statistics which show for the past five years the number of offenders revoked to prison for violations has gone up, from 36 percent in 2014 to 48 percent in 2019. The length of prison terms has also increased slightly from 50 to 52 percent during that time.
"There absolutely is no 'catch-and-release' practice in Missouri," Pojmann wrote. "Probation and parole processes are carried out as they always have been, in accordance with the constitution and state law."
Sheriffs are also concerned about state prisoner reimbursements, which they argued were $30 million in arrears. The sheriffs said Gov. Mike Parson has requested $22 million and agreed to work with county jails on the issue moving forward.
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