By the Editorial Board, January 21, 2020
A pilot project in St. Louis County that tracks defendants awaiting trial with a smartphone app — rather than using incarceration, bail or ankle monitors — is a promising idea, provided some concerns can be addressed. This idea on the leading edge of a pending statewide electronic monitoring program could ease jail overcrowding and save the county money while providing an effective but less intrusive way to keep track of those awaiting trial.
Some justice-reform advocates have raised questions regarding privacy of the defendants and the profit motives of the firms that provide the app services. But on balance, the new technology appears to address more concerns than it creates.
Traditionally, those awaiting trial for most alleged crimes can post bail so they don’t have to stay locked up while they wait. The promise of getting their money back, in theory, is what prevents them from fleeing.
But the conundrum arises with low-income defendants: They’re incarcerated pending trial because they can’t make bail, while someone accused of the same crime but who has more resources is set free. That injustice is exacerbated if the poor defendant is later exonerated at trial. In such cases, the time spent behind bars becomes entirely a punishment for poverty.
Fortunately, that system is changing. The Missouri Supreme Court last yearissued new rules that require judges to consider non-monetary conditions of pretrial release and to treat bail as a last resort. In some cases, that has meant ankle monitors to ensure that defendants don’t leave the jurisdiction pending trial. It’s a cumbersome and expensive system that makes it difficult for defendants to, say, sit down for a job interview.
Missouri is pursuing a statewide electronic monitoring program that would replace bail or ankle monitors in many instances. Cellphone apps provided by private vendors can track the defendant’s movements and use facial-recognition and other technology to verify that the person carrying the phone is the defendant when he or she checks in with court officials using the phone’s map and camera.
The state program has a built-in incentive to get counties to implement it, moving participants to the top of the list for reimbursements owed by the state to counties for incarceration costs. So the decision by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page to get in front of this idea and launch a six-month pilot program — provided cost-free through a private vendor — makes fiscal as well as fairness sense.
Any time new tracking technology is employed by public offices, especially with the involvement of private vendors, caution and transparency are called for. But properly implemented, these kinds of innovations can make the necessity of tracking pretrial defendants less intrusive and more efficient — and make the bail conundrum largely a thing of the past.