St. Charles Company Extorts Poor St. Louisans via 'Pretrial Monitoring,' Critics Say

Jan 10, 2019 at 4:06 pm
A private monitoring company is often criminal defendants only alternative to jail. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
A private monitoring company is often criminal defendants only alternative to jail.

St. Louis courts let a private company extort money from poor defendants through pricey fees for GPS ankle monitors, according to defense attorneys and criminal justice reformers.

In a letter to St. Louis judges, the authors blast Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services for what they say are illegal strong-arm tactics.

"The pretrial supervision practices in this Circuit result in the incarceration of individuals solely because of their poverty," the letter reads.

It was signed by leaders from ArchCity Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, St. Louis Public Defender, Bail Project, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center and Mound City Bar Association.

EMASS has a contract with the 22nd Judicial Circuit, which covers felonies and misdemeanors in St. Louis city, as well as other jurisdictions across the state. The St. Charles-based company provides GPS monitoring along with other pretrial services, such as handling criminal defendants' regular check ins and alcohol monitoring devices.

Often, the only way for a person charged with a crime to get out of jail while they await trial is to agree to a long list of conditions. Along with prohibitions against drinking or promises to avoid certain people, judges regularly require defendants to submit to an ankle bracelet or some other type of monitoring.

The problem, critics say, is that defendants have to pay a profit-driven private company for the privilege of wearing its monitors or checking in with its staff. These are people who haven't been convicted of a crime but still have to pay for their freedom.

The fees add up. GPS monitoring and house arrest electronic monitoring cost $50 for installation, plus $10 per day, according to the letter. Defendants might have to pay $300 up front for the first month, the reformers say. Mandated check-ins cost another $30 per month, and some defendants have been told not to show up if they don't have the money, triggering a violation, the defense attorneys say.

"The status quo of mass pretrial detention is already a moral outrage, but to condition freedom upon payment to a private company is just grotesque,” Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity, said in a written statement.

If defendants miss a payment because they don't have the money, EMASS will report to the courts that the person has violated the conditions of their release, even if they do everything else right. Based on an EMASS report, judges can issue warrants to have the person arrested and hauled back to jail.

The signers of the letter say that power lets EMASS use the threat of incarceration to squeeze poor people to pay fees they can't afford. It also violates defendants' constitutional rights, creating a system where poor people end up in jail where wealthier defendants go free.

The letter includes several recommendations for judges, including requiring EMASS to make it clear to the courts when the only violation is not paying fees. They also want judges to figure out what people can afford before locking them into expensive agreements which set them up to fail. And if defendants do miss payments, the attorneys and reformers ask that judges hold hearings to see what happened rather than issue arrest warrants.

The RFT has reached out to EMASS for comment; we'll update the story if the company responds.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.

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