'It may be legal, but it is certainly morally wrong': Inmates' release comes with cost
Staneice Hunter is deciding how to use the stimulus check that came in the mail Monday from the federal government in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 33-year-old Greenville woman's employer, an auto parts manufacturer in Duncan, has halted production, so she's not collecting a paycheck, yet she needs groceries and must pay rent and overdue bills.
She also has another looming expense — a mandatory $77 per-week fee for her ankle monitor.
She was released from the Greenville County Detention Center March 11 while awaiting trial for a DUI charge and put on the county's home-monitoring program.
She is one of 572 pre-trial inmates currently on the program while out on bond, said county spokesperson Bob Mihalic.
Those in the program face some of the same challenges as the rest of the community — namely unemployment and financial instability from the economic slowdown spurred by COVID-19.
That's come while local leaders are following state orders to reduce the detention center's population in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus.
Opinion Column:Why SC cannot ignore plight of inmates during pandemic
Part of that release effort includes judges putting offenders on home-monitoring programs rather than keeping them in the jail, which had a population of 906 as of Monday. There were 1,265 inmates on March 1.
Some of those on monitoring systems have said they can't afford to pay the fees that are required to use the systems, and they risk being put back in jail for violating conditions of their bonds.
Two Greenville County Council members are concerned.
"It seems like a back-door hustle," said Greenville County Councilman Ennis Fant. "I wasn’t even aware of it until people started calling."
Fant plans to speak on the issue during Tuesday's council meeting with hopes of drafting a resolution calling on the state court administration to suspend fees from home-monitoring programs.
"It is totally wrong to tell somebody, 'OK, we’ve got to thin the jail out because of coronavirus, so you get to go home while you wait on your trial — but you have to pay this third party 80 to 90 bucks a week, and you can’t get a job,” Fant said. “It seems grossly unfair and deserves a lawsuit to challenge it if it’s not corrected at some point. It may be legal, but it is certainly morally wrong.”
'There aren't any jobs to be had,' and that complicates monitoring program
The average cost of an ankle monitor is $8.91 per day, paid to Sentinel Offender Services, a third-party provider Greenville County contracts with for the devices.
The average cost that the county pays for a person to be confined to the detention center is $59.78, Mihalic said.
Mihalic said Greenville County judges use the home-monitoring program as an option when determining conditions of bond for inmates, but the fees and terms for the program are dictated by the third-party company. He said any changes to the program would be up to the third party and the state court administration.
The county is currently accepting bids for a new service provider since the contract with Sentinel is coming to an end. Sentinel could re-apply to remain the provider, or the county could see a new provider in the near future, Mihalic said.
The Greenville News has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the county's contract with Sentinel.
Sentinel Chief Business Development Officer Mark Contestabile told The News that participant fees are assessed using an income-based sliding fee scale approved by the county.
"Fee adjustments are made in accordance with the sliding scale when changes to income occur," Contestabile said.
County Councilman Lynn Ballard said he agrees with Fant and wants changes to the home-monitoring program. He told The News this week that the county should consider absorbing the cost of home monitoring rather than having participants pay out of pocket themselves.
"I have some friends that have been placed on ankle monitors. I understand how the system works. Generally, once they get out, they go to work and have income and are paying for that as part of their transition process," Ballard said. "There’s a little bit of a different situation right now. There aren’t any jobs to be had."
Accused woman awaiting trial chooses between ankle monitor and other bills
Bruce Wilson, a community activist, said it's counterproductive for authorities to release people to free up space at the county jail and then force people to pay a fee or face additional jail time.
"That’s what they’re telling them: 'If you don’t come up with the money, we’re putting you back in," Wilson said. "Something needs to happen. At least suspend the payments."
Hunter, who has used an ankle monitor since her March 11 release, said she's going to use what money she has to pay the monitoring fees because she fears that she'll go back to jail otherwise.
"If I don't pay up the next time I report, someone is going to lock me up," she said by phone Tuesday. "It's going to put most of my rent and my other bills that I can't pay a little bit more behind. But I wasn't worried about my other bills. The only thing I was worried about was that monitor, because I'm not trying to go back to jail — because I go back to work next week."
Rickey Sullivan, 57, of Simpsonville, is in the same position. He was charged with second-degree burglary in March and was let out of jail on bond on April 14 and ordered to wear a monitor.
For his case, he must pay $61.95 per week. He's a mechanic by trade but also disabled with high blood pressure and diabetes. His work has been limited amid the pandemic.
"I can't keep up with it," he said. "I've had to borrow that money from someone else."
Daniel J. Gross is an investigative watchdog reporter focusing on public safety and law enforcement for The Greenville News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @danieljgross.