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St. Louis Public Radio: St. Louis County To Track Criminal Defendants Through Smartphones

St. Louis County To Track Criminal Defendants Through Smartphones

DEC 7, 2019

St. Louis County plans to launch a six-month pilot program in January that tracks people accused of crimes by using a smartphone app.

County Executive Sam Page told the County Council in a letter Monday that his administration plans to hire eHawk Solutions, based near Kansas City, to provide the software.

The county’s smartphone monitoring program could be the biggest one of its kind in the U.S., according to the company. County officials are hoping such a program could reduce the local jail population.

“The way [county officials] have suggested they are going to be using it will be a pretty large-scale pioneering-type program that I don’t think anyone else has done,” said Ted Green, chief operating officer for eHawk.

St. Louis’ contract with eHawk hasn’t been finalized yet or released to the public, so it’s difficult to know many of the details of the program.

County officials have indicated smartphone monitoring could be used to supervise at least three groups: people who have been arrested and are waiting to hear whether they will be charged with a crime; people who have been charged with a crime and are awaiting trial; and people who have been convicted of a crime but aren’t considered a threat to society and don’t need to be incarcerated.

The app could be used in lieu of setting bail in some cases, Green said.

The company has agreed to provide the program for free during the six-month trial period. Neither the county nor the people who will be monitored will have to pay for the technology during that time. Around 870 people are being held in the St. Louis County jail at any given time. Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, who stepped down from running the county jail last month, expects about 20 to 40 people to enroll.

Electronic monitoring isn’t new for the St. Louis region. The city uses ankle bracelets to track criminal defendants, but that program has caused problems.

The ankle bracelets are bulky and sometimes carry a stigma when people have to wear them out in public, Doyle said.

Defendants in several places — including St. Louis city — also end up paying high fees when they participate in ankle-monitoring programs. The county wanted to avoid a program that would pass the costs onto people participating, Doyle said.

Smartphone monitoring is more discreet and flexible, he said. The smartphone app will track a participant’s location and can also be used to send people reminders for court appearances as well as mandated drug treatment appointments, Doyle said.

Advocates for those living at or beneath the poverty level and those caught up in the criminal justice system have serious concerns about the smartphone monitoring.

“The last thing we need is additional profit incentives in our criminal legal system,” said Michael Milton, who manages the Bail Project in the St. Louis region. His organization provides bail assistance to people who can’t otherwise afford it.

The majority of people awaiting trial are not flight risks or dangers to society, Milton said. They shouldn’t be subjected to government surveillance, especially when they haven’t been found guilty of crime, he said.

Milton also said many poor people don’t have access to smartphones or money to keep their cell service consistently active. He said the Bail Project has to provide cellphones to many of its clients because they don’t have a reliable way to get in contact with them otherwise.

Milton also has concerns that eHawk Solutions has connections to the bail bonds industry. Bart Cooper, the chief executive officer of eHawk, used to run a bail bonds company in the Kansas City area.

“Bail bondsman for decades, literally decades, profited off of poor people,” Milton said.

Green said Cooper’s experience in the bail bonds industry is an asset because Cooper is intimately familiar with the shortcomings of the current pretrial release system for criminal defendants. His expertise has helped the company develop a better smartphone app.

It’s unclear what happens when eHawk’s six-month free trial ends in the county. Green said the company and the government hadn’t talked about what the next steps might be.

One possibility is that Missouri could have a statewide electronic monitoring program up and running by then. The state has set aside $5 million to pay for electronic monitoring in local jails throughout Missouri, but it hasn’t selected a vendor for this program yet.

Green wouldn’t say whether his company was going to bid on the statewide monitoring contract.

“I probably shouldn’t talk about things we bid on before we bid on them,” he said. “The statewide program is really, really interesting to anybody who does what we do.”

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