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Digital Jail: Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants into Debt

As Missouri takes steps to reform its bail system, court advocates are concerned about a growing alternative to jailing people before trial: ordering them to wear ankle monitors. Ankle bracelets are promoted as a humane alternative to jail.

But private companies charge defendants hundreds of dollars per month to wear the surveillance devices. If people can’t pay, then they might end up back behind bars.

Last month, the Missouri Supreme Court issued new bond rules requiring courts to consider the ability of defendant’s to pay for electronic monitoring and consider how to minimize or waive the costs for defendants unable to pay.

Use and Cost on the Rise

Nationally, the use of ankle monitors is on the rise as cities and counties look for ways to reduce the number of people in their jails. Over the last 10 years, the number of accused and convicted criminal offenders monitored with ankle bracelets and other electronic tracking devices has risen 140 percent.

In Southwest Missouri, the monitoring devices cost defendants around $300 to $400 per month. Their payments go to various private bond companies, which operate with little oversight.

Reform advocates argue that these fees replicate the issues of cash bail: those who can afford them get to stay out of jail — and those who miss a payment can be sent back to jail.

Michael Milton, leader of the St. Louis office for The Bail Project, points out that one of the biggest problems is that these people have not been proven guilty of anything.

New Missouri Supreme Court Rules

On July 1, 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court issued new bond rules in an attempt to address this issue. Under the new rules, courts are required to consider how to best minimize the costs of electronic monitoring. And gave courts the ability to waive costs for defendants who cannot afford to pay all or a portion of those costs. Click here to read the new rule.

As expected, there have already been several challenges to this new rule regarding how judges can waive these costs and who is required to pay: the individual, the electronic monitoring company, or the State.

We will be keeping a close eye on the Missouri Supreme Court to rule on these challenges and will be monitoring courts in Southwest Missouri to make certain they are complying with these new changes. If you or someone you love has been required to wear a GPS ankle monitor, consider hiring an attorney to challenge that requirement.