Fifty-some sheriffs visited the state capitol March 12 to remind lawmakers that the challenges facing the sheriffs are real, that something needs to be done and that they need legislators’ help to make the needed changes.
Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish, the president of the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association, told the group of legislators and media representatives gathered in the House of Representatives Lounge that 2019 may go down in history as one of the worst years for sheriffs who are attempting to enforce the rule of law and protect the local law-abiding tax payers they serve.
“Sheriffs have been concerned many years – 2019 was just the culmination that the justice system has become too offender-centered. Some well-intentioned people have become too focused on those committing the crimes while not necessarily focusing on the neighborhoods they are affecting and the victims the sheriffs are committed to fighting for,” he said.
Sheriff Parrish summarized some of the challenges they’re facing:
▪ In March, 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that board bills should not be considered court costs – even though that had been the practice for 100 years.
▪ The Missouri Bond Reform, which was ordered December 2018 and became effective July 1, 2019, prohibits judges from keeping defendants in jail if they can’t afford bail. Instead, those defendants, many of whom are “career criminals,” are to be released on their own signature with only a ticket, which, according to sheriffs, allows them to continue to victimize their communities.
▪ State statute requires sheriffs to accept prisoners or face a misdemeanor, and the state is to reimburse counties $22.58 per day for holding those prisoners. However, Missouri is falling further and further behind in paying the jail per diems. As of December 2019, the state owed counties – and ultimately county taxpayers – an estimated $33.4 million.
▪ Sheriffs are at odds with the Missouri Department of Corrections because those sheriffs believe once an offender is sentenced to prison, he or she should not on Day 1 be considered for conditional early release. In many cases, inmates are serving one to three months per year sentenced.
Sheriff Parrish said they hear too often “’What is wrong with society?’ and ‘Why doesn’t society do more for the career criminal?’ We say they can’t afford court costs, we say they can’t afford the board bill, we say they can’t be in jail very long instead of just reminding ourselves that there’s a very simple way – a very simple way – to not have to do those things. Don’t violate the law. I know our constituents believe that if someone does violate the law, we should be firm and fair but also hold them accountable.”
Cape Girardeau County Sheriff Ruth Ann Dickerson went into more detail about jail per diems.
“We, as sheriffs, hear from our citizens every day about how we are handling our budgets – their tax dollars,” she said, reminding those present that their citizens, their constituents, their voters were the same citizens, constituents and voters that the legislators represent. “And they want to know how you are handling their tax dollars. When the state does not pay its bills, it affects not only the sheriffs but the citizens in the lost revenues to our communities.”
Sheriff Dickerson explained that although the rate has fluctuated over the years, since 1976, the state, under Missouri Statute 221.105 has paid per diem for all inmates housed in county jails.
“The state acknowledges that their daily cost for handling inmates is $65 a day. The state allows its own employees a per diem for meals of $34 a day. But the per diem of inmates is just $22.58. The state is also using local jails to hold parole offenders. It used to be that if someone violated their parole, they immediately went back to the Department of Corrections. Today those offenders are staying in the county jails waiting on hearings, waiting on the steps the Department of Corrections will take many times to be released back into the community without any further sentencing or time.”
Sheriff Dickerson also said 1996 was the last time the Missouri legislature and the governor’s office officially recognized that public safety is a partnership between the local, county and state government. Since that time, funding has been directed at other programs, causing the arrearage to grow. She produced a study conducted in 2010 by the National Association of Counties refuting DOC statements that Missouri is the only state that charges room and board. Instead, although different formulas are used, every state pays per diem. She also said a 2015 program evaluation of county per diem payments completed by the DOC showed they had studied the issue, although its officials claimed otherwise.
“The state funding must be appropriated to pay the bills owed by the state and the per diem should be the responsibility of the state,” she said.
Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott spoke next, discussing concerns about the direction taken by the DOC and the Division of Probation and Parole.
“Probation issues are a continued failure from the top of this organization. Our local P&P officers’ hands are being tied by not being able to recommend revocation. I talked to our circuit judge about three hours ago. He told me he sees offenders with 15 to 20 violations with no recommendation for revocation from Probation and Parole. We have proof that offenders are going to the P&P office, taking urine tests, showing positive for methamphetamine, then they simply walk out the door, get into a vehicle and drive off. This is a public safety issue. This puts Missouri’s citizens’ lives in danger every day,” he said, reiterating that those scenarios were not the fault of the P&P officer but rather from leadership in the DOC.
Sheriff Arnott also criticized the practice of rewarding parolees with gift cards for showing up on time at appointments.
“This is ridiculous! Do you know what the reward is? Not being locked up in jail and not going to prison. This philosophy has to change. If we want to hand out gift cards, let’s give them to Missourians who have been victimized – not criminals. We must remember that our entire justice system is based around taking care of victims. We want our message to be clear. Missouri’s sheriffs will continue to be vigilant and tough on crime but legislators, we need your assistance to change the philosophy of this department,” he said.
Johnson County Sheriff Scott Munsterman addressed the group next, talking about bond reform.
“In the reform, they labeled drugs and drug offenders as ‘non-violent crime.’ I disagree. Drug offenders are not only a danger to themselves, they are also a danger to the communities we represent. During investigations of crimes in our communities, we’re dealing with drug offenders every day and see that they’re tied in with burglaries, car larcenies, and simple property crimes. Drug offenders are utilizing citizens’ assets to help supplement their addiction,” he said, adding that although they arrest the offenders, reforms require sheriffs to simply issue a summons to appear in court and then release them back into the community where they continue to reoffend.
And individuals are not following through and showing up in court. Sheriff Munsterman said since the new rules went into effect, the failure to appear rate in Johnson County has increased 28 percent. In neighboring Cass County, that number jumped 48 percent.
He closed by sharing a statement from a friend that “non-violent” does not mean “non-dangerous,” stressing that those who were breaking into cars and homes to steal and supplement their drug addictions were dangerous and needed to be behind bars.
“To sum up, we are here to protect the local law-abiding tax payer,” Sheriff Parrish said, adding that sheriffs recognize and respect those who are assisting offenders in becoming better citizens. “But the pendulum has swung too far. It’s very simple to not have to follow any guidelines. Follow the law.”
By Nancy Zoellner