Criminal-justice reform advocates and public defenders are calling on the St. Louis circuit court to reduce its use of monitoring systems that require defendants on bond to pay hundreds of dollars in fees to a private company while awaiting trial.
In a six-page letter sent Thursday to judges of the 22nd Circuit Court, advocates argue that forcing people to pay for court-ordered ankle monitors and check-ins as a condition of their release from jail is an unconstitutional and unnecessary financial burden. Payments are made to Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services – commonly called EMASS – a private company based in St. Charles.
“These presumptively innocent individuals are essentially shackled, often unconstitutionally, by the cost and burdens of private supervision, and their inability to afford such costs has resulted in re-incarceration,” the letter says. It is co-signed by representatives of ArchCity Defenders, The Bail Project, the public defender’s office in St. Louis, the ACLU of Missouri, the MacArthur Justice Center and the Mound City Bar Association.
Pretrial supervision fees – $10 to $15 per day for ankle monitors, and $30 per month for in-person check-ins – are unafforable for many people awaiting trial in the city, according to the letter.
“We want to make sure that judges are aware that a condition of EMASS is an additional barrier to people’s freedom,” said Michael Milton, who heads The Bail Project’s St. Louis office.
Many of the nonprofit’s clients are given just 24 hours to come up with $300 to pay for their first month of electronic monitoring, he said. If they can’t scrape together enough money, they can be found in contempt of court and have a warrant issued for their arrest.
“Those of us who can’t afford to pay this face going back to jail,” said Jocelyn Garner, who is making monthly $30 payments for in-person check-ins as she waits for her case to progress.
“People say you’re innocent until proven guilty, but really you’re guilty until proven innocent, because I’m the one paying to keep my freedom every month,” she said. “And if I can’t do that and don’t do anything other than not do that, I’ll still go to jail. And that’s scary.”
Mary Fox, St. Louis’ chief public defender, said she noticed a significant increase in judges ordering GPS monitoring as a condition of bond last year.
“There was never any finding by those judges that there was a danger to the community, or that there was a concern that the defendant would not come back to court,” Fox said. “It was simply a way for them to put extra controls on someone who had not yet been convicted of any crime.”
The 22nd Circuit Court first contracted Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services for post-conviction supervision services in July 2000, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
A spokesman for the 22nd Circuit said the court received the letter and is taking it into consideration. Presiding Judge Robin Ransom, who started in her post last week, was appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District on Wednesday afternoon.
Follow Carolina on Twitter: @CarolinaHidalgo