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Missouri Supreme Court rules parolees' ability to pay court costs must be considered

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Missouri ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday a parole revocation was improper because the court failed to consider reasons why an indigent defendant failed to pay court cost. The case dealt with a man named William Fleming who was unable to repay $4,236.50 in three years as required by the court in conjunction with his probation. After missing numerous payments, the lower court revoked his probation even though his probation officer requested an alternative plan without costs. Fleming argued it was a violation of his due process rights to revoke his bond for failing to pay when he complied with the terms of his probation except for repaying the court costs. The Missouri Supreme Court noted found

The sentencing court violated Mr. Fleming’s due process and equal protection rights when it improperly revoked his probation for failure to pay court costs without first inquiring as to the reasons for his failure to pay, making findings as to whether he willfully refused to pay or failed to make bona fide efforts to acquire the resources to pay, and considering the conditions he has already satisfied or other alternative measures of punishment. Therefore, Mr. Fleming is ordered discharged from his sentence of imprisonment and subsequent parole and restored to his status as a probationer.
The lower court has 60 days to investigate and initiate a new revocation hearing or Fleming is off probation.

The issue of finances as a factor for revocation or imprisonment is a contested issue. The Maryland Court of Appeals adopted a rule [JURIST report] in February ending the practice of holding criminal defendants in jail before trial when they cannot afford bail. Last June A lawsuit accused [JURIST report] a Louisiana judge of running a modern-day debtors' prison for sentencing people to jail when they could not afford fees. Last March The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reached a settlement [JURIST report] with the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, in a lawsuit alleging that the detention of defendants unable to pay fines for misdemeanor charges exhibited deliberate indifference to their constitutional rights. Also last March The US Department of Justice (DOJ) urged [JURIST report] state court systems to stop using procedural routines and hefty fines to profit off poor defendants.

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