Criminal justice is not a game

By Larry Newman
    Get out of jail free! No, we're not talking about playing a friendly game of Monopoly, but rather, the far higher stakes of criminal justice with habitual criminal offenders.

    It refers to the current state of affairs in Missouri where a high percentage of individuals who have been arrested—in many cases multiple times—are no longer being held in jail pending trial. Nor are they required to go before a judge to determine whether or not they are eligible for bail. Rather, they are simply being released back into the streets with no financial conditions at all.
    This might not sound bad at all if we were only talking about minor misdemeanors. But the persons being set free have faced extremely serious charges including child sexual assault, robbery, drug dealing and rape. This sobering reality may make you think twice the next time you walk past unfamiliar faces in your neighborhood.
    It all started in 2019 when unilateral rule changes to Missouri's criminal justice system were made by the state Supreme Court in an attempt to level the playing field for individuals lacking the money to pay for their bail. Suddenly, judges were stripped of their ability to protect public safety by using their discretion and setting bail high enough so that defendants would face significant financial consequences if they failed to appear.
    The new rules gave repeat criminals every reason to rejoice. No longer accountable for their actions, they knew that being arrested simply meant a few days of gratis room and board at their local jail (three meals a day included, of course) after which the doors to the jail would swing open and they would be free to offend all over again. What about the police? They have been rendered all but a non-factor, all too aware that even if they catch these individuals red-handed while re-offending, it won’t matter. They'll be back on the street in no time flat. Rinse and repeat justice—or rather, the lack of it.
    Every parent of a young child knows that poor behavior without consequences will result in the behavior continuing and even getting worse. The problem never goes away by itself. So it is in our dealing with criminal defendants. We are now reaping the rotten fruit of poor public policy as evidenced by the huge rise of crime including shootings, assaults, burglaries, robberies and stabbings. Offenders must be held accountable for their actions, a fact that seems to have been forgotten by many who have somehow cast them as victims rather than the perpetrators of crimes.
    It is not that we should lack compassion, but we must first address their offenses, while factoring in public safety. Should offenders be allowed their freedom pending trial? Absolutely, but only under the watchful eye of judges whose job it is to weigh fairness against their duty to protect the public. Circumventing a proven system of checks and balances that has worked for most of the history of the United States is just plain foolish.
    As bad as things are getting, we should not be surprised at the rise in violent crime. Historically, statistics have shown that the more lax we are with offenders, the more crime increases. Missouri's catch-and-release system has upended public safety and left law enforcement holding the bag, forced to deal with a situation that seems to deteriorate more each day.
    Fixing the problem caused by "get out of jail free justice" would simply require us to return to a system that worked extremely well for decades. Despite the concerns of reformers, it fully supports the rights of persons who have been arrested, guaranteeing them the right to a bond. In the process, by requiring a cash bond where warranted, it provides for the protection of the public by incentivizing defendants to show up for their court appearances. It also grants bail agents the authority to travel outside of the state to retrieve offenders who fail to appear—at no cost to taxpayers.
    Public safety should not be regarded as a privilege doled out by a Missouri Supreme Court intent on making law. This is not the job of the judiciary, but rather, it is the responsibility of the legislature. In the process, the court has ignored common sense, the will of the people and most all, their duty. The people of Missouri must stand up and let their elected officials know they demand changes that protect everyone.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Newman currently serves as the President of the Missouri Alliance of Professional Bail Bond Agents, a trade organization that promotes ethics, standards of conduct and education for individuals involved in the business of bail bonds in Missouri. In addition, Larry also currently serves on the state and federal Legislative Committee of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, a professional association representing bail agents nationwide. Newman lives in Carthage, Mo., and operates AAA Way Bail Bonds.