Defendants Often Foot Bill Of Costly Electronic Ankle Monitors

Jul 7, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn to an issue in the criminal justice system where activists have been trying to highlight systems that may seem fair on the surface but in which, they say, poorer people are unfairly disadvantaged compared to the more affluent. Earlier this week, Missouri became the latest state where new cash bail policies went into effect. The new rules state that judges can not keep non-violent defendants in jail if they cannot afford to post bail.

And one alternative for officials looking to monitor nonviolent offenders as they await trial are electronic monitoring devices - ankle bracelets. But according to a report in The New York Times, ankle monitors are often provided by private companies that can charge large fees for their services. In fact, defendants are often left to foot the bill - up to $10 a day. If they don't pay up or miss payments, they may end up behind bars anyway.

We wanted to talk about this, so we've called Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders. They're one of the civil rights groups that brought a class-action lawsuit against the city of St. Louis, which led to this week's cash bail changes. Blake Strode, welcome. Thanks so much for talking to us.

BLAKE STRODE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, first, would you just tell us the two big changes that the Missouri Supreme Court ruling is supposed to bring about?

STRODE: Well, the new rules by the Missouri Supreme Court really are codification of existing Missouri and federal constitutional law with respect to setting conditions of release. The basic fundamentals around bail are that a person is entitled to pre-trial release unless they are either a flight risk or present some danger to a particular individual or to the community at large. And what we were seeing in St. Louis is that there was sort of a default on unaffordable cash bail that was violating the constitutional rights of people moving through the courts.

MARTIN: Will people's financial capacity now be weighed when it comes to the question of bail or not? Is that something that is going to be considered?

STRODE: Yes, that's one of the clearest instructions in the new Missouri Supreme Court rules. Judges take that seriously and make affirmative inquiries into someone's ability to post bond when they set that amount.

MARTIN: About activists have raised the number of complaints about these electronic monitoring devices or ankle bracelets. Can you just tell us what some of them are?

STRODE: Sure. So I think there are many complaints about these. One is that they come with a cost that people can't afford to pay. And there's no real accounting for someone's ability to pay typically when forced to sign up for these pre-trial supervision services. Another is that it limits someone's ability to actually do the things that are really necessary to live a full, healthy, active life like work and getting children to school and getting to church and whatever other activities people typically go through in their day. When they're limited that you can only be home or at a probation officer's office or at work and nowhere else, it means that you can't do some really important things that are actually critical to living a full life.

MARTIN: Is there a way to balance - to better balance interest in public safety, the rights of defendants and also the public's interest in not burdening people with so much debt that they can't function?

STRODE: The problem with approaches like this private pre-trial supervision is that they not only fail on a sort of, you know, human, moral level when you look at the impact that they're having on poor people, they also really are failing on a public safety level. They're failing in terms of outcomes. There's really nothing that suggests to us that our current approach of investing in this kind of surveillance and caging black and brown people is actually resulting in better public safety outcomes.

MARTIN: That's Blake Strode. He's the executive director of ArchCity Defenders. That's a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis, Mo. Blake Strode, thank you so much for talking with us.

STRODE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.