With Little Oversight, A Private Company Collects Fees From People Awaiting Trial In St. Louis

By Carolina Hidalgo, St. Louis Public Radio

ST. LOUIS, Missouri – Once a month, Jocelyn Garner steps off a bus and walks into a dimly lit waiting room in the Dutchtown neighborhood of St. Louis. Her name is called, and an office worker jots down her personal information and asks if she’s staying out of trouble.

The visits take less than five minutes and cost her $30. Her payments go to Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, a private company based in St. Charles that tracks and monitors people awaiting trial in St. Louis.

Garner is one of many in St. Louis court-ordered to report to the for-profit company commonly known as EMASS after posting bail. Under the law, she’s innocent — but as she waits for her day in court, she pays monthly fees to maintain her freedom. Missing a payment could lead to a warrant for her arrest.

“They threaten you if you don’t pay them,” said Garner, who is awaiting trial for charges filed against her nearly a year ago. “You could be in compliance with everything, but if you don’t pay them then you’ll go back to jail.”

The 22nd Circuit Court does not know or track the number of people its judges have ordered into the private pretrial monitoring program, nor does it receive regular reports or collect data from the company, according to multiple court officials.

Contracts provided to St. Louis Public Radio by the court show the company’s initial agreement, signed in 2000, required EMASS to provide periodic reports of all cases under its supervision. But that clause was removed in 2012, when a new contract went into effect.

Neither contract went through a public bidding process since the cost of supervision falls entirely on those awaiting trial. EMASS charges people $30 a month for in-person check-ins, $300 a month for GPS monitoring and $450 a month for alcohol monitoring.

Garner works two part-time jobs and said she struggles to set aside $30 a month. If her case gets dismissed or she’s found not guilty, she won’t get back any of her money.

“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.

Lack of reporting requirements

St. Louis chief public defender Mary Fox estimates that hundreds of people in St. Louis are ordered to report to EMASS each year. But in 2018, she noticed a significant change. She said some judges started ordering defendants into the monitoring program at a rate higher than she had ever seen.

Advocacy groups and defense attorneys noticed, too. In a letter sent to the 22nd Circuit Court last month, several nonprofit and legal groups argued that forcing people to pay for monitoring as a condition of their release from jail is an unconstitutional and unnecessary financial burden.

“Charging people fees when there has been no finding of guilt is just in violation of our constitution,” Fox said.

The letter prompted conversations within the circuit, according to Court Administrator Nathan Graves, whose office keeps track of the court’s contractual agreements. “I do expect us to take a deep look at this,” he said.

The court first contracted EMASS for misdemeanor probation services after Missouri cut probation funding, according to 22nd Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer. A contract signed in July 2000 shows the company also offered electronic house-arrest monitoring and several classes, including substance-abuse education programs and a $100 financial-responsibility seminar.

“It was an additional tool that judges could use, and, of course, they didn’t have to use it either,” Ohmer said of EMASS’ services. “Really, you just want the person to come to court and you want the case to get resolved.”

In 2012, Ohmer signed a revised contract that included an expanded list of services: drug screenings, alcohol monitoring, bond supervision, outpatient drug and alcohol treatment and more. He said he doesn’t remember why a clause requiring EMASS to produce semiannual reports was removed.

“I don’t have any specific memory of that,” he said, adding that he never saw or received any reports while the requirement was in effect.

St. Louis Public Radio issued a public-records request for all reports from EMASS to the court since 2000. Court Administrator Nathan Graves responded that “no records matching your request have been found.”

Multiple EMASS employees directed all questions to founder and president Michael L. Smith, who started the company after working as a state probation and parole officer for 17 years. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Private companies that provide probation services have faced recent criticismbecause they’re not required to adhere to the same transparency and accountability standards as state agencies. In Missouri, they operate with few regulations and little oversight.

“Anything at all that’s court-ordered should be reported back to the court, and data should be transparent,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a national nonprofit that advocates for evidence-based pretrial practices.

“Data is only as good as what you collect, and it’s only as good as what you do with it,” she added. “Being able to analyze the outcomes associated with a condition of release that you’re assigning would seem to be vital.”

Restrictions of pretrial supervision

Beth Huebner, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminal-justice professor, said a pretrial release program used in St. Louis County has been an effective way to supervise defendants and make sure they return to court. Funded by the county department of justice and the 21st Circuit Court, the program pairs caseworkers with defendants who are deemed low-risk.

“Pretrial caseworkers are trained to supervise individuals and to contact them regularly,” said Heubner, who’s working with the county to reduce its jail population. “The county relies more on that program than they do on GPS.”

Huebner said fewer than 5 percent of people have committed a crime while in the program, and nearly everyone has returned to court. GPS monitoring, she added, is best suited for people convicted of serious violent crimes such as sexual offenses.

“Otherwise, it almost ensnares people,” she said.

Isaac McClendon experienced the limitations of life with an ankle monitor after getting out of St. Louis’ Medium-Security Institution last year. He spent four weeks in the jail on a $20,000 cash bond, waiting for his public defender application to be processed. After a judge reduced the amount he needed to pay to $250, he got help from The Bail Project – a nonprofit that posts bail for people who can’t afford it.

Just before his release, he found out he had 24 hours to come up with $300 for an EMASS ankle monitor.

“A lot of people coming home from jail don’t have it,” McClendon said about the fee. “I was locked up with people that didn’t even have $5, or $2 on their phone, to call home and talk to their kids and their family. So, I know they don’t have $300.”

The Bail Project helped McClendon gather community donations for his first month of supervision. But the ankle monitor made it impossible to find a job, he said. He needed permission from EMASS to leave his aunt’s house – where he’d moved in order to be near a landline telephone, another requirement of the program.

“I couldn’t get a job until I got off the house-arrest bracelet, because either I wasn’t able to get in touch with EMASS or I had an interview on a day that I had to go check in with them,” he said. “So I just blew off going to the job interview, so I wouldn’t get punished or get in trouble.”

McClendon said he’s one of the lucky ones. After one month with the ankle monitor, his public defender convinced a judge he didn’t need such intense supervision. His next $300 payment would’ve been due the next day.

“I honestly don’t know what I would have done if they would’ve said ‘No, he has to keep it on,’” McClendon said. “I had not $1 for them.”

Changes ahead

A new set of rules announced in January will change the way judges in Missouri set bail.

The rules, which go into effect in July, explicitly state that judges must determine a person’s financial status before setting a cash bond or ordering defendants to pay for monitoring.

“These changes ... are extensive and meaningful,” said Missouri Chief Justice Zel M. Fischer, who outlined the new rules during his State of the Judiciary speech last month.

J.R. Hobbs, a Kansas City defense attorney who co-chaired a task force that drafted the new language, said the new rules “have a little more bite.”

“The idea is to emphasize that you start with non-monetary conditions,” Hobbs said. “You’re supposed to take information: how much do you make, where do you work, do you have any savings? That’s a lot more specific than the old rule.”