How to End Debtors’ Prisons in Missouri — Right Now

Elad Gross
May 11 · 3 min read

Yesterday, Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that some Missouri courts are issuing arrest warrants for people who can’t afford to pay jail fees.

In Missouri, when you go to jail, you can be charged for your stay. Miss a court date? Didn’t take care of a speeding ticket you got months ago? The court can issue a warrant for your arrest, and, if you don’t have the money to buy your freedom, you could spend some time in jail and then have to pay even more for your room and board. What if you can’t pay the board bill? You risk going back to jail and racking up even more debt.

It’s a poverty trap.

The most shocking thing about Messenger’s last article is that the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that this practice is unconstitutional back in March. That means courts shouldn’t do this anymore.

So if you can afford an attorney, your lawyer can get you out of this trap. The problem is most folks who can’t afford to pay their jail bills can’t afford an attorney either, and now it’s up to them to: 1) Know the Missouri Supreme Court ruled this practice unconstitutional; 2) Know who to talk to and what to say to get themselves out of this trap; and 3) Do all of that while already trying to make ends meet and living in fear of having an arrest warrant out there.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, some courts are perpetuating this debtors’ prison scheme.

Back in January — before the Supreme Court ruled — I explained how our Attorney General can take big steps to end this poverty trap pushed by our courts. Back then, our Attorney General submitted a brief to the Supreme Court supporting the end of debtors’ prisons, but, other than writing a bunch, he didn’t act. (He actually fought to keep this mess going. Just days after he filed his brief touting his opposition to debtors’ prisons, our Attorney General kept a man in a debtors’ prison after a court ordered his release.)

Here’s what our Attorney General should do:

First, our Attorney General should publish an official opinion stating that debtors’ prisons are unconstitutional.

Second, he should send that opinion — along with a cover letter — to every problematic court in our state. He should inform each court that if the practice continues, he will take immediate legal action.

Third, the Attorney General should work with our court system to train staff and judges throughout the state about this issue.

Fourth, the Attorney General should refer problem courts to the Auditor under RSMo. 29.221 and to local prosecutors.

Fifth, the Attorney General can use his authority under RSMo. 27.060 to go after courts that are taking money from Missourians without authorization.


A lot of spots in our justice system need reform. Far too often, Missourians are punished simply because they don’t have money. Our public servants don’t have the resources they need to do their jobs. And when our justice system isn’t just, all of us suffer.

We need folks in leadership willing to do the work. I hope our Attorney General reconsiders and takes immediate action. Here’s the blueprint. We shouldn’t have to wait until 2020 for a change, but we’ll get it if that’s what it takes.

You can be a part of making our state a fairer home for all of us. Join the team to take back Missouri at www.EladGross.org.

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Elad is running for Missouri Attorney General to end public corruption and to put our kids at the center of our state’s policy decisions. www.EladGross.org.

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