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Reduce The Use Of Cash Bail? There's An App For That

Lindsey Michalowski | Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner

The lead public defender in St. Charles County says a new mobile phone app he helped design could reduce the need for cash bail.

Michael Sato and a team of five developers came up with the idea for Freecog as part of the Global Legal Hackathon, which looks to use technology to solve criminal justice issues. Their proposal won the St. Louis event — the team will know by March 25 if they have advanced to the finals.

Sato said too many defendants who are no risk to their communities are sitting behind bars because they or their families cannot afford to post cash bail.

Freecog is intended to give defendants charged with low-level crimes a way to use smartphones to fulfill pretrial requirements like daily check-ins with the court, or to prove they have completed courses like anger management.

“I think there are a lot of judges in a lot of cases who really don’t care about the cash they are securing against the defendant’s release,” he said. “They just want to make sure they come back to court, and they want to make sure that they have an incentive to do so. And this would provide that.”

Regardless of whether the team advances beyond the next round, Sato said, they have already formed a nonprofit to get the app built.

“I really sincerely believe it could save both criminal defendants and the state of Missouri millions of dollars, and it could really change the paradigm away from the cash-bail system,” he said. And the nonprofit structure, he added, takes away the incentive to use monitoring to make money off defendants.

Sato estimates it could cost about $1 million to fully develop the app and run it for a year. He said an associate judge is interested in piloting its use when it’s fully built.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.