As St. Louis Tries To Reform Bail System, Advocates Warn About Increase In Ankle Monitoring
Before he got another chance at freedom, Tyrone Henley spent six weeks in jail, unable to put up $25,000 cash bail.
But last week, Henley and dozens of others in St. Louis jails received new bail hearings after a federal judge ruled the city’s bail-setting practices unconstitutional.
At his hearing, a judge decided to release Henley after he signed a promise to return to court. But there was one more condition: In order to stay out of jail, the 55-year-old has to wear an electronic ankle monitor.
And although Henley is glad to be out of the city’s Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the Workhouse, he said he still feels confined.
“I’m not free because I’m on house arrest,” he said. “They’ve still got me.”
As St. Louis takes steps to reform its bail system, court reform advocates are concerned about a growing alternative to jailing people before trial: ordering them to wear electronic ankle monitors.
Nationally, the use of ankle monitors is on the rise as cities and counties look for ways to reduce the number of people in their jails.
In St. Louis, the monitoring devices cost defendants $300 a month. Their payments go to Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, a private company commonly known as EMASS, which operates with little oversight.
Reform advocates say these fees replicate the inequities of cash bail: Those who can afford them get to stay out of jail — and those who miss a payment can be sent back.
“As we move away from cash bail, we have one chance to actually do this right,” said Michael Milton, who leads the local office for The Bail Project, a national nonprofit that posts bail for people who can’t afford it.
His group connects people facing charges with social services and offers them court date reminders and rides to the courthouse. He believes that resources and support are key to helping people get through their cases.
“We’re still missing the very simple fact that these people have not been proven to be guilty of anything,” he added.
An increase in electronic monitoring
Milton said he’s seen an increase in the number of people ordered to report to EMASS in the two weeks since U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig ordered the St. Louis Circuit Court to schedule bail review hearings for hundreds of people locked in city jails.
The hearings are on hold now as city and state attorneys appeal the judge’s order, which came after several civil rights groups jointly filed a lawsuit challenging St. Louis’ cash bail system. In her order, dated June 11, Fleissig wrote that the bail-setting process in St. Louis “falls short of constitutional standards.”
Last week’s hearings gave a glimpse into what the bail review process will look like starting July 1, when changes to Missouri’s pretrial release rules go into effect.
Milton said that out of 40 people with bail reductions who were bailed out by The Bail Project in the past week, nearly half were ordered to report to EMASS.
Presiding Judge Rex Burlison on Wednesday confirmed the recent increase, although the court is still collecting data on the outcomes of last week’s hearings.
Burlison said he expects the city to approve a request for funds to cover EMASS fees for people who can’t afford them. He hopes to see the funding in place by next week, when the new pretrial release rules go into effect.
The changes to the Missouri Supreme Court rules, drafted by a statewide justice reform committee, aim to make sure nobody ends up stuck in jail on a bail amount they can’t pay.
Who pays for court-ordered monitoring?
On Monday morning, Tyrone Henley stood in the shade outside an EMASS office on South Grand Boulevard and lifted his pant leg to reveal a black box attached to his ankle. An office employee had outfitted him with it minutes earlier.
He’s worried about how he’ll pay for the monitor while waiting for his trial on burglary charges. A judge waived his first monthly fee but Henley said an EMASS employee told him he’d eventually have to pay the company.
“They’re still saying the money will catch up with me,” he said.
Michael Smith, the president and founder of EMASS, did not respond to multiple interview requests. In addition to pretrial monitoring, his company charges for court-ordered alcohol monitoring, drug screenings and more.
There’s no national data on how many courts pass along pretrial monitoring costs to defendants, said Alec Karakatsanis of Civil Rights Corps, which is one of several firms suing the city and court over its cash bail practices. But a 2014 NPR survey indicated that passing along various types of fees is a common practice nationwide.
“One of the scandals of this issue is that nobody has bothered to really quantify the scope of it. Because I think we would find it’s so ubiquitous and the costs are so staggering for impoverished people,” Karakatsanis said.
St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Steven Ohmer, who signed the court’s current contract with EMASS, said the fees are a legitimate part of a defendant’s responsibility before the court.
“The court’s not just imposing a cost just because we want to penalize this poor individual,” Ohmer said, adding that judges need to ensure the public is protected and that defendants will appear for court.
“And how do we do that? By these conditions,” he said. “And if there are certain fees with that, then I think it does fall on the individual.”
‘Data is only as good as what you collect’
The St. Louis Circuit Court did not previously require EMASS to file regular reports. But earlier this year, after advocates raised concerns and St. Louis Public Radio reported on the practice, the court requested quarterly reports from the company.
The first of those reports shows that about 65 defendants had GPS ankle monitors in March.
The reports are a first step toward gathering more data, according to Court Administrator Nathan Graves. But the court is not gathering data to analyze how effective electronic monitoring is at getting people to show up for their court dates.
“Data is only as good as what you collect, and it’s only as good as what you do with it,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a national nonprofit that advocates for evidence-based pretrial practices.
Burdeen said there’s a need for more research on electronic monitoring’s effectiveness. A 2011 study by Burdeen’s nonprofit found that monitors do not reduce rates of failure to appear in court.
“Research shows that electronic monitoring is either totally ineffective or it’s slightly effective – but only for certain kinds of charges and people with certain kinds of criminal history,” Burdeen said. For example, a 2012 study shows it may be effective in domestic violence cases.
“Electronic monitoring in and of itself should be used incredibly sparingly,” she said. “Because we barely know where it works or how it works well.”
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