Judge Laura Johnson, Western District Commissioner Mike Robertson, Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips

The Christian County Commission met with Presiding Circuit Judge Laura Johnson to discuss Missouri Supreme Court rules for low-income court defendants.

 

Rules for monitoring persons accused of crimes may cost Christian County thousands of dollars.

At a meeting with the Christian County Commissioner, Presiding Circuit Judge Laura Johnson shared a pair of newly-enacted rules from the Missouri Supreme Court that could add more than $40,000 in costs to Christian County’s budget each year.

“The revisions will make pretty significant changes to the whole way that we handle bond within the circuit courts, but specifically, the ones that I think will have an impact on the county are certain costs that the rules will shift to the county,” Johnson said.

Defendants determined to be indigent, unable to afford the services of a defense attorney due to their low income status, may be ordered to be placed on GPS monitoring and/or take drug and alcohol tests while they are out of jail but awaiting trial. GPS monitoring costs about $11 per day, but those costs may be waived if the defendant is determined to be unable to afford them.

Soon, those costs will be the responsibility of the county governments rather than the state.

“I don’t know who else is going to pay them. I mean, the vendors are going to be out there saying, ‘Who is going to pay for these costs?’ and the rules say it can’t be the defendants,” Johnson said.

Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips doesn’t like the new rules, but said Christian County will have to make adjustments to future budgets in order to pay for the monitoring and testing.

“it’s not like we have a choice. It’s not something that leaves us up to debate,” Phillips said. “It’s basic financial math, it’s that simple.”

The new rules, Phillips said, force the Christian County Commission and other offices to do some long-range planning in a time when sales tax revenue is flat.

“My goal as the presiding commissioner is to get every office to look at where this county stands financially,” Phillips said.

Judge Johnson estimated the cost of paying monitoring and testing costs for low-income court defendants on a monthly basis. In April, there were nine indigent defendants on GPS monitoring at a cost of $11 per day. About 20 low-income defendants had to take periodic drug and alcohol tests, which cost about $15 per test.

“Some we test weekly, some bi-weekly, some once a month. That can be progressive, too, as they show improvement throughout the time of their pretrial supervision,” Johnson said.

GPS monitoring is frequently used for defendants accused of domestic violence or sex offenses.

The entire monitoring and testing program came out to about $3,600 per month.

“The next question becomes how to handle that,” Johnson said.

Johnson recommended that the Christian County Commission select a single provider for GPS monitoring and drug testing. The indigent defendant provider contract could be bid out on a regular basis, in the same manner that the county bids out other reoccurring services by asking for qualified requests for proposals.

The judge also told the Christian County Commission about another major expense on the horizon.

“The Supreme Court rules require that a risk assessment tool be performed on each defendant in custody, so every defendant who’s in custody has to have this risk assessment performed. The Supreme Court also believes that no one currently within the system can perform that assessment in a fair and unbiased manner,” Johnson said.

The Supreme Court, Johnson said, wants each circuit to use someone who doesn’t already work in the justice system, such as a prosecuting attorney staffer or sheriff’s deputy, to perform risk assessment tests on jail inmates.

Johnson said the Supreme Court rule may lead the 38th Circuit to create a new job for someone who would specialize in doing the assessment tests. It may be a part-time job, or it may require someone’s full-time attention.

“As of right now, there is no Supreme Court-approved risk assessment tool. There are risk assessment tools floating around out there that have been used by other states in determining the appropriate bond, but there is not one that’s been adopted by Missouri,” Johnson said.

However, the cost is coming, perhaps as soon as 2020.

“I know this has to be done, and I know you’re just the messenger, but this is a rotten deal. It really is,” Eastern District Commissioner Mike Robertson said to Johnson.

For that reason, the judge said Christian County won’t mandate the risk assessment test for jail inmates until the Missouri Supreme Court approves an assessment tool.

The commissioners calculated rough estimated costs between $100,000 and $150,000 per year.

“It seems to be an annual event, I would say in a little over three years in this position, of the Supreme Court mandating rules that impact the county’s budget,” Phillips said.

The actual expenses will likely fall onto the 38th Circuit Court’s budget for upcoming years.

“None of this is reasonable,” Western District Commissioner Hosea Bilyeu quipped. “I’m pretty sure we’ll lean toward (costs) being under the court’s budget.”

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