A long time ago, you could earn jail time for not being able to pay your bills. That’s right, being poor used to be a crime that could send you to jail! Debtors’ prisons were legal in the United States, until 1833 when a law banning the practice was passed. Nowadays, getting thrown in jail for being too poor to pay your bills shouldn’t be a worry. However, for some people, debtors’ prisons in Missouri are still a concern.
As recently as last year, 2019, people had warrants issued when they couldn’t pay their boarding bills to their county; a bill charging an individual for their stay in a county jail. One woman in Andrew County had a warrant issued for being only two dollars short. Her friend paid that two dollars, but it was fifteen minutes late, so the court issued a warrant. It wasn’t withdrawn until she made another payment a week later.
She’s not the only one. Imagine being sent a bill that you could not pay, then getting arrested and jailed, making the bill even higher. John Martorelli didn’t have to imagine that. In 2011, he was arrested two times for failure to pay. His bill rose to over $6,000.
When veteran George Richey faced a similar situation, he decided to fight. Mr. Richey is one of two men who started a lawsuit that went all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. In 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that an individual could not be jailed for their inability to pay their “board bills.”
This chain of events was a never-ending cycle of bill, arrest, bill, arrest. Richey’s lawsuit complained of financial exploitation and punishing people for poverty, the very things the 1833 law sought to fix. The never-ending jail-bill cycle made it impossible for some people to get out. St. Clair County, where Richey’s lawsuit was filed, made 40% of its money from their jail. Some think this was just a way for the county to generate revenue.
The Missouri Bill
In 2019, Governor Mike Parson signed MO HB 219, which prevented people from being put back in jail for their inability to pay boarding bills. The new law breaks the cycle by moving the board bill collection process to civil court instead of criminal court. Meaning that although people are still required to pay their board bills, they cannot be jailed for their failure to pay. With no jail time, people have the opportunity to earn the money needed to pay off their debts. The bill took effect on August 28, 2019.
So, what does this mean?
No longer do people need to fear being sucked into an endless cycle of debt and prison. The concept of a Missouri debtors’ prison should now be a relic of the past and rightly so. However, with the state law fresh on the books, you should still seek legal counsel if you believe you are being mistreated by the system. The law is complex, and you need every resource to fight for your rights. If you have any questions or would like a free consultation, contact attorney Chris Benjamin at KC Road Lawyers by calling 816-425-2420 / 660-679-4161 or navigating to our contact page for a consultation at the firm’s Lee’s Summit or Butler Missouri offices.