The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Feb. 13 that defendants who haven’t finished paying restitution can’t be released early from probation for good behavior.
In a unanimous opinion, the court resolved what it said was a conflict between two statutes. Section 217.703 allows those on probation to get “earned compliance credits” — a 30-day reduction in the period of their probation for each full calendar month of compliance with the terms of their supervision. But section 559.105 says a probationer can’t be discharged until he or she has fully paid all court-ordered restitution.
To resolve the conflict, the court held that probationers still can accrue earned compliance credits, or ECCs, but they can’t apply them against the term of probation until the restitution is paid.
“In this manner, the conflicting statutes are harmonized, and both are given effect to the fullest extent possible,” Judge Paul C. Wilson wrote for the court.
The ruling came in an opinion that resolved separate writ cases from two circuits. The Supreme Court said Judge John D. Beger in Pulaski County could not release defendant Nettie Pallai from probation because she had paid only a portion of her $5,100 restitution bill. But Judge Fred Copeland in Pemiscot County was found to have acted correctly in refusing to discharge Erica J. Long even though she’d earned enough credits because Long still owed $346 in court costs.
In affirming that the restitution requirement took precedence over the more general provisions for earned compliance credits, Wilson pointed to an amendment passed last year to section 559.105 that says that probationers can be discharged “so long as the offender has completed restitution.” The statutory change wasn’t in effect at the time that Pallai’s and Long’s cases were being decided. But Wilson said the amendment clarifies the legislature’s intent because it “expressly provides that the restitution obligation survives ECC accrual.”
In a footnote, Wilson expressed some “trepidation” at the result of the case, even though the Missouri Constitution guarantees that crime victims have a “right to restitution” while criminal offenders do not have a right to probation.
“The legislature’s choice to permit probationers to accrue ECCs — but not to apply them to achieve an early discharge until court-ordered restitution is paid in full — may result in otherwise avoidable incarcerations,” he wrote. “In the end, this will do little to advance the goal of restitution.”
While Pallai and Long had failed to pay restitution, however, they didn’t claim they were unable to pay it, he added.
The two cases were argued on Oct. 9 alongside a third case involving a denial of early probation release in Ste. Genevieve County. That case, involving probationer April L. Coleman, remains pending.
The cases are State ex rel. Hillman v. Beger, SC97171, and State ex rel. Long v. Copeland, SC97331.