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County considers creating restitution fund, establishing fee for felons

A felony conviction or guilty plea in St. Charles County may cost defendants not only jail time but an extra $100 to help offset law enforcement and prosecution expenses.

The St. Charles County Council is expected to act this month on a bill establishing a county law enforcement restitution fund and a $100 fee to pay for law enforcement expenses, including those of the prosecuting attorney’s office. The bill was introduced at the council’s Nov. 28 meeting.

County Executive Steve Ehlmann told the council that enabling legislation, passed last year in the Missouri General Assembly, prompted the county to set up the fund as one way to offset rising costs. County officials are worried that a tight county budget next year may limit funding for county police and the prosecuting attorney’s office. The bill and some possible changes in prosecution policy may provide more money, particularly to help out the persecuting attorney’s office, which seeks more staff.

“This will help give them another prosecuting attorney,” Ehlmann said during a council work session before the regular board meeting.

State legislation that lets counties create a restitution fund, allowing judges to require offenders to pay up to $300 into the fund as part of their probation or suspended sentence, has been on the books since the early 2000s; however, the county has not passed a bill establishing a local fund. Money from the fund can be spent on law enforcement activities, supplies and equipment, used as match funds for grants and other expenses and for paying prosecution expenses related to investigation, trials and deposition of criminal cases.

The funds cannot be spent unless approved by a five-member board of trustees, appointed by the county executive. The board members cannot be current or former elected officials or employees of the county’s police, corrections, finance or sheriff’s departments, the prosecuting attorney’s office or the county council.

The county also can use the funding to supplement, but not supplant, the funding that the police department and prosecuting attorney’s office receives from the general fund portion of the county budget, Ehlmann said. Money collected for the fund may pay about half of a new assistant prosecutor’s salary next year.

Ehlmann said funds collected are considered a fee; therefore, county officials have to justify that the money it collects is reimbursement for actual expenses. Otherwise, the county would have to place the fund on the ballot for voters to decide.

Joann Leykam, the county’s director of administration, said the new legislation passed this year allows the fee to be collected from persons convicted or who have pleaded guilty to felonies. The fee cannot be collected from persons guilty of or pleading guilty to misdemeanor traffic offenses. If the bill becomes law, it will be up to judges to impose the fee.

While the state allows a fee of up to $300, Ehlmann noted that the county has aimed low.

“Even $100 may be too much but we sent this to you,” Ehlmann said.

“It’s fair to say that this is no way any type of money grab,” said Councilman and Council Chair Joe Cronin [District 1] during the meeting. “We’re just asking restitution of a portion of our costs for law enforcement and prosecution of folks who actually have been convicted or pleaded guilty in the court system.”

 

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