On Oct. 12, 2018, Daehaun White walked free, or so he thought. A guard handed him shoelaces and the $19 that had been in his pocket at the time of his booking, along with a letter from his public defender. The lanky 19-year-old had been sitting for almost a month in St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, a city jail known as the Workhouse, after being pulled over for driving some friends around in a stolen Chevy Cavalier. When the police charged him with tampering with a motor vehicle — driving a car without its owner’s consent — and held him overnight, he assumed he would be released by morning. He told the police that he hadn’t known that the Chevy, which a friend had lent him a few hours earlier, was stolen. He had no previous convictions. But the $1,500 he needed for the bond was far beyond what he or his family could afford. It wasn’t until his public defender, Erika Wurst, persuaded the judge to lower the amount to $500 cash, and a nonprofit fund, the Bail Project, paid it for him, that he was able to leave the notoriously grim jail… When he finally read Wurst’s letter, however, he realized there was a catch… the judge, Nicole Colbert-Botchway, had ordered him to wear an ankle monitor that would track his location at every moment using GPS. For as long as he would wear it, he would be required to pay $10 a day to a private company, Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, or EMASS. Just to get the monitor attached, he would have to report to EMASS and pay $300 up front — enough to cover the first 25 days, plus a $50 installation fee.
Over the past half-century, the number of people behind bars in the United States jumped by more than 500%, to 2.2 million. This extraordinary rise, often attributed to decades of “tough on crime” policies and harsh sentencing laws, has ensured that even as crime rates have dropped since the 1990s, the number of people locked up and the average length of their stay have increased. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the cost of keeping people in jails and prisons soared to $87 billion in 2015 from $19 billion in 1980, in current dollars.
Yet like the system of wealth-based detention they are meant to help reform, ankle monitors often place poor people in special jeopardy. Across the country, defendants who have not been convicted of a crime are put on “offender funded” payment plans for monitors that sometimes cost more than their bail. And unlike bail, they don’t get the payment back, even if they’re found innocent. Although a federal survey shows that nearly 40% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to cover an emergency, companies and courts routinely threaten to lock up defendants if they fall behind on payment.