Thom Gross: Circuit Court actions reduce pretrial detention

A little more than a year ago, bail bond practices and detention of defendants awaiting trial in the St. Louis Circuit Court came under great scrutiny.

Today, the court is a model of collaboration and innovation that has sharply reduced pretrial detention while assuring that arrestees get prompt legal representation and, when appropriate, health care and social services.

What happened?

In December 2018, the Missouri Supreme Court published new statewide rules to take effect last July 1. The rules limit how long a newly arrested defendant can be detained without a hearing and restrict the courts’ ability to set cash-only bonds.

At the same time, the St. Louis Circuit Court began collaborating with a broad coalition of agencies to address pretrial detention and other issues in the criminal justice system. The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an initiative of Mayor Lyda Krewson, meets monthly to enhance communication and coordination.

Presiding Judge Rex M. Burlison, preparing for the new rules taking effect, created a court division for immediate bond review for new defendants. This allows a hearing within 48 hours after confinement for every person charged with a felony. Previously, poor defendants often had to wait weeks until a public defender was assigned to represent them.

An assistant circuit attorney and a member of the private defense bar are present at the bond review hearings. If the accused person consents, the private defense attorney represents that person for the purpose of the hearing only. Later, the accused may hire another attorney or apply for a public defender.

The judge hears testimony about the defendant’s financial means and then considers bond. The judge may decide to release the person on no more than their promise to return to court. The judge may also impose other conditions of release, such as requiring the defendant to wear an ankle monitor.

Ankle monitors previously posed a financial burden on poor defendants, who were charged $50 for installation and then $10 daily. Now, through a grant obtained by the Department of Public Safety, under director Jimmie Edwards, the court is able to release more indigent defendants with monitors at no cost to them.

If, however, the judge determines that the defendant is a danger to the community, the judge may decline to set any bond amount, requiring the person to remain in detention until trial. Under those circumstances, the defendant is entitled to a trial within 120 days.

The new bond-review division also has become the point at which arrestees who need social services can connect to providers of health care, mental health and addiction treatment, housing, and other services. The court has hired a pretrial services coordinator to help make those connections.

The cost of ankle monitors is far less than the approximately $125 daily cost of detaining a pretrial defendant.

The court projects that almost 400 will be released with ankle monitors this year. This should reduce total detention days by more than 15,000 for savings of $1.3 million to city taxpayers.

In addition, with the hiring of two full-time employees, the court has expanded the hours of its Pretrial Release Office to 24 hours per day, every day. Last year, bonds could be posted only during court business hours. This expansion speeds releases after initial bond hearings and is another way the court is reducing detention costs.

Previously, defendants arrested for failure to appear for an earlier hearing or violations of probation conditions could wait several weeks in jail before a hearing. Beginning Jan. 1, the court has required hearings for these defendants the day following their re-arrest.

Finally, the St. Louis Circuit Court has improved tracking of pretrial defendants from arrest through case disposition, speeding justice and producing additional savings. This has been possible through collaboration with St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts, Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and Court Administrator Nathan Graves.

Today, the average population in pretrial detention — excluding federal inmates — is less than 700, down a third from the average number in December 2018, when these discussions began. The trend continues downward.

The 22nd Circuit Court will continue to pursue justice for all St. Louisans, innovate within the Missouri Supreme Court rules, and efficiently utilize taxpayer funds.

Thom Gross is the public information officer for the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court of Missouri.