By Dennis Minich
Judges in Cass County have been the focus of many social media attacks in recent months because they have been perceived as soft on crime, as bonds being set in many cases seem to be outrageously low. It now appears the local judiciary was practicing new procedures, knowing changes were coming.
Seventeenth District Presiding Judge Bill Collins has been on the bench for 25 years, and he readily admits things have changed.
“Maybe we were doing it wrong in the past, I don’t know,” he said last week.
The old routine had been virtually unchanged for decades. When suspected criminals were arrested, they were placed in custody. Bonds would be set based on the nature of the crime, and the accused could post bail, secure bond through a bail bondsman or sit in jail. No consideration was given to a person’s ability to pay or to weigh their flight risk.
“The purpose of bond is not to keep someone in jail, it is to ensure they come to court. We’ve had people sit in jail with relatively low bonds because they simply couldn’t afford it. We are now looking for alternatives,” Collins said.
District judges have met, trying to come up with a list of criteria to be considered, knowing that new mandates were coming from the state supreme court. The need became even more critical last week, when the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri certified a class-action lawsuit and enjoined St. Louis law enforcement from holding suspects simply because of their inability to post a bond.
The conclusion of the order by U.S. District Judge Audrey G. Flessig, dated June 11, 2019, stated in part: “Defendant Jail Commissioner Dale Glass is enjoined from enforcing any monetary condition of release that results in detention solely by virtue of an arrestee’s inability to pay, unless the order is accompanied by a finding that detention is necessary because there are no less restrictive alternatives to ensure the arrestee’s appearance or the public’s safety.”
Collins said the nature of the case has been known and the finding is not a surprise. He said current practices in the district court, which is comprised of Cass and Johnson Counties, may have kept it from being the subject of another such suit.
“Judge Rumley (Associate Judge Mike Rumley) has kept us out of all that because he’s already been taking other considerations into account. He has taken a lot of heat, but he gets it. He is a former military police officer and a former Kansas City police officer, and he wants to be tough on crime, but he’s doing exactly what needs to be done,” said Collins.
There are a variety of new procedures which the Missouri Supreme Court has handed down which will take effect on July 1. Those, along with the ruling of the federal court, could greatly alter the judiciary throughout the state. Already, a bond hearing must be held within the first 48 hours after an arrest. Under new procedures, a new program may be put in place such that anyone in jail, because they could not post bond, must have a hearing with seven days to consider an alternative form of release. An arrestee must either be remanded without bail, or have some other type of arrangement made.
“The judge will now have to determine the strength of the evidence— not during the trial, but within the first seven days,” Collins said.
He said communication between the sheriff’s office and various police departments in the county with the judges may become more crucial, as arresting officers are the ones who know the details the best and can give the judges detailed information faster than going through the prosecutor’s office.
Another change in the system could also have major ramifications, Collins explained: Under the new system, anyone who is remanded without bond, which will be the most serious offenses, may have the right to demand a trial within 120 days. The U.S. Constitution provides the right to a speedy trial, and the definition will be the 120-day benchmark.
“This is a constitutional question,” Collins said. “This is going to give heartburn to a lot of prosecutors and a lot of police and sheriff’s departments, because they have to prepare their case in 120 days.”
Making that even more complicated is the fact that most major cases require lab testing such as DNA testing, blood work or drug testing. According to officials with the Harrisonville Police Department, such testing can take up to two years— the average is about one year. In certain major cases, testing can be prioritized; but even then, a month is usually necessary.
Harrisonville Police Chief John Hofer said, “The labs are so backed up, it is just hard to get results. You can prioritize with things like homicides, but even then, unfortunately, there’s a lot of homicides. Do we have to start sending things out to private labs? That is going to cost a lot more money, so I don’t know.
“But for sure, this is going to put a lot of pressure on us and the prosecutor’s office and the judges.”
There has been outcry that the supreme court is supplanting the legislature with new guidelines, but Collins said that was not the case, as these rules are not how crimes are punished but are simply what it takes to get people to show up for court.
“The public sees these bail stories and gets upset, and I understand, but what we are looking at is at the back end, not the front end,” he said.
The irony may be that the very people the new rules are intended to help may well be the ones disadvantaged.
“If someone is remanded and they can afford a good attorney, that 120-rule may be great, because the prosecutors will be the ones having to scramble. But someone depending on a public defender may have to sit longer, because the public defenders are simply overloaded,” he said. “Where the legislature may play a part here is in budgeting more money for public defenders.”
Collins noted the 17th District has been recognized for its speed in dispensing juvenile cases, and the family court has handled record numbers the past two years. He said the problem is not the number of cases, it is the time it takes to try each case— but regardless, those challenges can be met.
“The prosecutors are going to have to get ready. The defense attorneys are going to have to get ready. But the courts will be ready,” Collins said.