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Missouri Chief Justice Russell calls for boosts in mental health services, juror pay

Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell delivers the State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at the state capitol in Jefferson City.
Tim Bommel
Missouri House of Representatives
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell delivers the State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at the state capitol in Jefferson City.

The speech, delivered Wednesday to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly, is the 50th State of the Judiciary address.

The longest-serving judge on the Missouri Supreme Court says she is grateful to the hundreds of judges and thousands of court staff who make the state’s judicial system work.

“Thanks to them, we are problem-solvers as we decide hundreds of thousands of legal disputes each year,” Chief Justice Mary Russell told a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly on Wednesday. “Because of their hard work, I'm proud to say the state of Missouri's judiciary is strong.”

Russell said courts have reviewed the cases of more than 245,000 people who were eligible under Missouri’s amendment legalizing marijuana to have their records expunged. More than 190,000 people have had minor drug-related offenses removed from their records.

“Plus they've done all this while still processing all of your constituents' other cases,” Russell said.

But although the judicial branch is doing well, the General Assembly can help its employees do the job better, Russell said, especially in the area of mental health.

Defendants are waiting an average of six months to be screened for whether they are competent to stand trial. That means those with mental illness sit in local jails, which do not offer much in the way of treatment.

Those delays make those facilities more dangerous for corrections officers and other inmates, Russell said.

“Concrete cellblocks are not conducive for treating mental health or addiction issues,” she said.

Russell wants lawmakers to create a statewide pretrial office that would give even smaller counties the ability to offer things like treatment and social services. She is also asking the General Assembly to authorize mental health courts. They would work like drug treatment courts, where individuals are charged with low-level offenses.

Russell also wants the General Assembly to boost the pay for jury duty.

She has spent time traveling to judicial circuits across the state during her current term as chief justice. And court personnel, she said, are often embarrassed to tell potential jurors the pay rates.

“To comply with jury service, our citizens must take time off work and make other arrangements to care for their families. In turn, they receive only the statutory minimum of just $6 per day and 7 cents per mile,” she said.

Russell says those rates have not been adjusted since 1989. If inflation is taken into account, jurors should get more than $15 a day, and about 18 cents a mile for travel.

This is Russell’s second stint in the role of chief justice, which rotates among the members of the court. In 2014, when she first spoke to lawmakers, the court had just started rolling out electronic filing, and public court records were only accessible from portals at courthouses.

Now, e-filing is in place at all levels. And since July 1, anyone can access public court files from a home computer or a smartphone.

Since remote public access started, the average number of hits on the court’s case tracking site has reached nearly 5.2 million per day, Russell said. An average of nearly 7,000 people a month sign up for the site’s case-tracking feature.

Russell’s address on Wednesday marked the 50th time the head of the judiciary has delivered such a speech.

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Rachel Lippmann