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Downtown crash illustrates flaws in St. Louis' ankle monitoring system, critics say

Daniel Riley was required to wear a GPS ankle monitor when police say he caused a crash that led to a young volleyball player to lose her legs.

ST. LOUIS — Court officials say there are about 250 people charged with crimes awaiting trial who are on GPS ankle monitoring in the City of St. Louis. 

The number has skyrocketed in recent years in our city and around the country, according to court officials and nonprofits like the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and the Prison Policy Initiative.

Daniel Riley was required to wear the device when police say he caused a crash that led to a young volleyball player losing her legs. He ran through a yield sign in downtown St. Louis, striking 17-year-old Janae Edmonson, an innocent bystander. She lost her legs. 

Riley had been wearing an ankle monitor. He was out on bond, charged with armed robbery.

“This piece of technology is not doing the job," said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson with the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. She researches the impact of ankle monitoring technology.

“Over the last several years, courts have replaced in-person case monitoring with ankle monitors. But a piece of technology is not the same as a person," said Bertram. "Ankle monitors are not just liable to fail; they are liable to suggest that someone is violating their house arrest or their probation way more than they actually are. Technology is a dangerous replacement for in-person supervision services. Prosecutors are right to want to reduce the jail population, but technology is often not the way to do it,” said Wanda Bertram with the Prison Policy Initiative.

A new report shows ankle monitors are used more often in our area. In December 2022, 72% of people released from jail in the City of St. Louis were given a GPS monitor. That compares to 68% in December 2021.

The monitors are seen as a way to help certain people charged with crimes avoid jail time and still go to places like work and school. They’ve also contributed to lowering our city’s jail population. Other factors that have contributed to lowering our city’s jail population have been statewide rule changes that require judges to consider a variety of factors when considering giving someone bond as opposed to detaining them without bond. The pandemic also had a big impact on jail populations, due to public safety concerns.

The City of St. Louis' jail population is down more than 60% over the last five years.

But Bertram says there are too many people using these devices, without enough resources to keep up. “So I think that this all really should lead to some more skepticism around the broad use of ankle monitors," she said. 

When Riley crashed, records show he had violated the terms of his ankle monitor dozens of times. Critics of monitors say it shows how people like Riley fall through the cracks. 

“Without facing any apparent consequence for that," said Missouri District 80 Rep. Peter Merideth (D).

Merideth, a Democrat, said the devices only work if they’re monitored. 

“Do you think prosecutors dropped the ball?” asked the I-Team's Paula Vasan.

“I think that it's very possible that's the case," he said. “They're understaffed. They are undertrained. And the communication is not good.”

The St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office has said Riley’s GPS tracking violations were no secret, an office spokesperson saying it was a judge’s decision to allow him out of jail. 

A court spokesperson tells the I-Team GPS violations are routinely sent to attorneys, not judges. Judges aren’t provided alerts on a daily basis, unless someone brings it to their attention, like a lawyer on the case, according to a court spokesperson.

St. Louis City's 22nd Judicial Circuit Court’s chief communications officer Joel Currier said ankle monitoring companies like Total Court Services send notifications of GPS violations to courtroom clerks who routinely monitor large queues of filings in all criminal and civil cases. 

"Immediately after a Total Court Services submission to Case.Net, and before a clerk accepts a filed GPS violation, the attorneys of record receive notification via email," he said. "The clerks receiving the reports of GPS violations ensure those are promptly filed in the appropriate criminal case. ...Judges do not automatically get notified via email... Courtroom clerks may sometimes decide to alert judges after observing a string of violations, and when that happens, a judge may decide to contact the attorneys of record about it. Ultimately, though, the responsibility of seeking to revoke a defendant's bond rests with the assigned prosecutor."

“You have to make sure that they're not just being monitored, but that there's a response to the monitoring," Merideth said.

Merideth has supported millions of dollars in funding for GPS monitoring devices. He sees the technology as an alternative to mass incarceration. But he says the crash that happened here shows how that technology has limitations.  

"So when it comes to these ankle monitors, what have we learned from this tragedy?” asked Vasan.

“I think what we learned is it's not enough to just monitor somebody and do nothing about it. We have to have a system in place and people in place that are making sure that when you give somebody rules and a monitor, they're required to follow those rules," Merideth said.

People familiar with ankle monitors say another flaw of the device can be the price, and who pays. For some people, the court covers the cost. For others, it can cost up to hundreds of dollars a month. And that’s happening all over the country. A total of 43 states charge people to wear them, according to The Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national advocacy organization.

“Forcing people to pay that much to be monitored is unproductive and really just leads people into worse situations than they were in before they were on the monitor," said Bertram.

Studies with additional research on electronic monitoring

The Fines and Fees Justice Center has a 50-state report on electronic monitoring fees.

Study of the impact of electronic monitoring on people by Harvard professor and PJI Board Member Sandra Susan Smith

Want to contact Paula about the story or another investigative tip? Email me at paula@ksdk.com. For the I-Team, Paula Vasan, 5 On Your Side. 

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