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Report on court costs and the poor includes Missouri

By Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis, MO. – Poor defendants can wind up in jail in Missouri if they are unable to pay the state for court costs and other fees.

Missouri was one of 15 states highlighted in a report this month by the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

One of the authors, Rebeka Diller, says states are applying more pressure on defendants to pay, even those who are represented by public defenders.

"It's ironic because the same budget factors, the same economic factors that are squeezing state budgets are also making it harder for folks who owe the money to pay and to get jobs that can help them pay off their debt," Diller said. "It's really the worst of both worlds right now."

Missouri is one of two states where defendants can write off court costs and fees by choosing to go to jail, although court officials say that's rare.

Currently, Missouri is owed about $168 million in un-paid court costs and fees.

This year the Missouri Supreme Court convened a commission to study how to collect more of that money.

The commission's chairman is Judge Robert Koffman of Sedalia.

"The theory is if we make an effort, a practical effort, to collect them that we'll relieve pressure off the system, and we'll have better courts, state government will move smoother and people will get services that don't have to be cut," Koffman said.

Judge Koffman says judges are required by law to collect court costs, but he says, they use justice in doing so.

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