Blake Strode

Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, discussed conditions at the city’s Medium Security Institution, the Workhouse, in a November 2017 press conference at Christ Church Cathedral.

When Judge Robin Ransom was appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals a week after she took charge as presiding judge in the 22nd Circuit, it was a mixed blessing for those of us who advocate for racial equity, particularly in the life-or-death field of criminal justice. The City of St. Louis, which is covered by the 22nd Judicial Circuit, lost its first black female presiding judge no sooner than she took power, but the state Court of Appeals gained some much-needed racial diversity. Of the 14 judges hearing appellate cases in the Eastern District, Ransom becomes only the second African American on that bench.

Ransom also misses out on the opportunity to strike a dramatic and much-needed note of reform in the 22nd Circuit and St. Louis, though that opportunity remains for the new presiding judge. One matter that needs immediate reform is the circuit’s troubling and arguably unconstitutional practice of allowing a private pretrial services and electronic monitoring company – Eastern Missouri Sentencing Services (EMASS) – to demand money from poor defendants with the threat of arrest if they cannot afford payment.

A group of local legal advocates – ArchCity Defenders, the St. Louis Public Defender’s Office, The Bail Project, American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, Mound City Bar Association, and the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center – was preparing a letter to Ransom calling for reforms to this practice when she was appointed to the appellate bench. We urge the new presiding judge, who will be selected on January 24, to act on these suggested reforms – which we will outline, before urging an even more dramatic reform.

The advocates urge the circuit to waive fees where someone is found to be unable to pay the fees charged by EMASS but a court continues to require electronic supervision as a condition of bond. They urge the circuit to stop the practice of incarcerating people for failure to pay EMASS fees. They urge the circuit to require that EMASS specifically inform the court where the inability to pay is the reason for alleged noncompliance with conditions. And they urge the circuit to evaluate its current contract with EMASS and EMASS’s current practices and services in light of the legal and constitutional implications of such practices.

“The people most harmed by these unjust, revenue-generating pretrial supervision services are poor and disenfranchised residents of St. Louis,” said Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders. “These practices not only jeopardize someone’s individual liberty, they reveal an expanding landscape of mass incarceration through the proliferation of a money-based electronic monitoring industry. The status quo of mass pretrial detention is already a moral outrage, but to condition freedom upon payment to a private company is just grotesque.”

We agree – and we agree that these suggested reforms would reduce one way that the current practice of criminal justice in St. Louis is grotesque and unconstitutional. But a truly bold and fearless judicial reformer would go one step further.

The new presiding judge should set a policy that the circuit court order the City of St. Louis to pay EMASS fees for defendants offered pretrial release with electronic supervision, and then expand that offer to let all defendants accused of non-violent crimes to await their trial dates any place other than inside the city’s criminally negligent and unconstitutional jails. The city, to pay its new EMASS bill, should close the notorious Medium Security Institution, the Workhouse, which would at any rate not be needed if the circuit stopped ordering poor defendants to be detained in a jail before their day in court.

The new presiding judge has a real opportunity to both end the currently grotesque and unconstitutional system of electronic supervision – and close the Workhouse.

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