Court-Ordered Electronic Monitoring Triggers Pushback In St. Louis
In 2000, the circuit court in St. Louis entered a contract with Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, a private company based in St. Charles that tracks and monitors people awaiting trial in the region.
At first, the company was required to provide periodic reports of all cases under its supervision. That changed in 2012 when it signed a new contract with the city court, leading to no routine collection for up-to-date data. In recent years, there have been higher rates of judges ordering defendants into the monitoring program, according to St. Louis chief public defender Mary Fox.
On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Sarah Fenske hosted a conversation about the role of electronic monitoring services during the pretrial stages and the implications it has for defendants. The Bail Project’s site manager Michael Milton and Judge Rex Burlison, presiding judge of the 22nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri, joined the conversation.
Advocacy groups argue that forcing people to pay for monitoring as a condition of their release from jail is an unconstitutional and unnecessary financial burden. And as The New York Times reported, there’s ample pressure in St. Louis to adopt these monitors compared to the rest of the country.
“There’s been an increase [of lower cash bail] as a result of the work in bail reform happening around the country. Now they are turning to electronic monitoring because they view it as an alternative. But what we have found, with the almost 3,000 people that we posted bail for, over 90% of those people have returned back to court without their money being on the line,” Milton said.
The private pretrial monitoring program charges people $30 a month for in-person check-ins, $300 a month for GPS monitoring and $450 a month for alcohol monitoring — and these fees can oftentimes fall entirely on those awaiting trial. St. Louis County does not currently have a contract with EMASS but offers it as one of the services defendants can sign up for if they have court-ordered electronic monitoring.
These fees concern local activist and civil rights organizations, since under the law, defendants have not yet been found guilty, but they’re required to pay for an electronic monitoring service even after posting bail. Missing a payment could lead to a warrant for their arrest.
Such was the case with Jocelyn Garner, who also joined Thursday’s program. The court ordered her to report to EMASS after posting bail. After she was incarcerated for six months, the Bail Project helped Garner pay her bond. But part of the bond’s condition was the requirement that Garner sign up for EMASS’ ankle monitoring system.
“Mind you, I’m coming off a six-month incarceration. I didn’t have a job,” Garner said. “I lost my job, housing, family, everything … where [was] I going to get $300?”
After negotiating, Garner was asked to report to EMASS and pay $30 a month for in-person check-ins. “Now, I know that seems like it's nothing. But when you're coming from nothing — $30 — you may as well have been asking for $1,000 a month,” she added.
Burlison pushed back on the notion that the fees fall entirely on the defendants.
“Since last July, 220 defendants have been provided GPS free of charge, the installation and the monthly [fee], through a grant that was secured by Jimmy Edwards, the director of public safety for the city. So when [Milton] says that this is ‘fairly typical,’ that is untrue.”
Burlison further explained the process a defendant follows after being accused of a crime.
“At the initial hearing, which takes place within 48 hours of arrest, a judge looks at the financial capabilities of the detainee or the defendant. And if the judge determines that they're indigent and determines that a GPS monitoring is indicated, then [he or she will] put on that order. … And when that order is given to the private service provider — in this case EMASS — then they fit and monitor free of charge to that indigent, and bill the circuit monthly. And that bill is paid through the grant that Director Edwards has secured,” he said.
Burlison didn’t indicate how many people have qualified to have their electronic monitoring fees covered under the grant, and Milton questions that process.
“What is the method in assessment in which we can determine the person's ability to pay?” he asked. “Who's taking into account that the person can actually afford this? So that's number one. Number two … [the Bail Project] is still posting bail for people, and [we] still have to figure out a way to advocate for them for that to be free. So yes, we have seen some changes. But what we need to see is a complete diversion away from using these systems, because these are still people who are presumed innocent under the law.”
Last week, the Bail Project put out a report outlining these alternatives and their framework for reimagining pretrial rules.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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