Lawmakers slam Missouri Supreme Court over bail rules

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Dozens of Missouri lawmakers have asked the state Supreme Court to undo new rules limiting when judges can impose bail, a move that was aimed at reducing court costs that can derail the lives of low-income defendants.

More than 80 legislators signed on to a letter sent by Rep. Justin Hill to Supreme Court judges this week. In it, the Republican complained that a new rule requiring judges to first consider non-monetary conditions for pretrial release went too far.

“Now, individuals who are potentially dangerous or have a history of failing to appear for court are being released on recognizance — with no conditions at all — because the rules that went into effect in July make it too difficult for judges to impose bail,” Hill wrote.

He cited one of the two convicted felons facing criminal charges over a Kansas bar shooting that killed four people. Both men allegedly involved had previous brushes with the law that could have kept them behind bars had judges and other officials made different decisions, although only 23-year-old Javier Alatorre's case dealt with Missouri judges.

Alatorre was released from jail in September in Jackson County, Missouri, where he still faces charges of fleeing from police in a stolen vehicle. A judge released him on his own recognizance after his attorney sought to have his bail lowered.

Missouri judges are still able to set bail under the new rules if needed, but only at an amount necessary to ensure either public safety or that the defendant will appear in court. Courts may not order a defendant to pay costs associated with conditions of their release, such as the costs of an ankle monitoring bracelet, without first considering reducing or waiving those costs.

Prior court rules directed judges to impose bail only to ensure that defendants returned to court, although the Missouri Constitution gave judges leeway to deny bail or set limits on release as a way to protect victims or public safety.

During a speech before the Legislature last year, Missouri Supreme Court Judge Zel Fischer praised the changes as a way to ensure defendants are treated fairly in the justice system.

"Too many who are arrested cannot afford bail even for low-level sentences and remain in jail awaiting a hearing," Fischer said. "Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs, cannot support their families and are more likely to reoffend."

Hill and other lawmakers want the new rules tossed. Hill instead proposed limiting bail for minor offenses, requiring judges to hear bail appeals quickly, and ensuring that defendants don't stay in jail before trial for a longer period of time then the possible sentence for their alleged crime.

A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court didn't immediately comment Friday.