Missouri jails housed 11,000 people in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a U.S. public policy think tank oriented toward criminal justice issues.
And while judges may offer the option of pretrial release to many prisoners, the cost of GPS tracking that often is required as a condition of bond may be out of reach for low-income defendants.
“I became very frustrated with the current market for the GPS monitors because those are run by private companies. They’re charging defendants usually about $10 a day to wear them,” said Michael Sato, a public defender in St. Charles County.
“So $300 a month is a non-starter — that’s a bill that my clients cannot afford. … It felt unfair that this was a tool that … wealthier people could use to get out of jail that was not available to my clients, and I thought, ‘You know, there is nothing particularly special about the technology involved with those.’”
Sato, who has worked as a public defender for more than 10 years, recently acquired an additional title: co-founder of Freecog, a GPS- and phone-based monitoring app that offers an inexpensive alternative to ankle bracelets often worn by criminal defendants who are free while awaiting trial.
This entrepreneurial venture began in February 2019, when a friend invited him to the Global Legal Hackathon — an event that unfolded simultaneously in 46 cities worldwide wherein lawyers, programmers and others had only one weekend to devise and pitch a tech solution to a legal-practice problem. Winners of preliminary rounds move on to subsequent rounds in hopes of eventually pitching their idea to a panel of international judges.
At the St. Louis gathering, Sato met a team of software engineers who were enthusiastic about working with him. All but one is still involved in the project. Those engineers, who work for St. Louis-based Daugherty Business Solutions, include Tamara Berger, Luke Peterson, Zack Wotawa and Joshua Veal-Briscoe.
Freecog took form during that event.
“That launched an incredible weekend where, over the course of the next 46 hours, this incredible group of people worked really hard. . . . And then we put the pitch together and we pitched at the end, and we won, so that was pretty cool. I think we have the best idea of that round of the competition at least,” Sato said.
Since then, they’ve incorporated Freecog as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Freecog also won first place in the IdeaBounce competition hosted by Washington University in St. Louis’ Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship during Startup Missouri’s inaugural Startup Expo in October.
The app enables judges to customize each defendant’s bond requirements online. For example, a judge can dictate when and how often a defendant must check in via video and where they may and may not be at any given time of the day.
Defendants receive a passcode at the time they are required to check in with the court. The defendant then makes a short video in the Freecog app while reciting that passcode. The app uses facial recognition to ensure the correct person is appearing on camera.
Team members said they recognize that historically there have been problems with using facial recognition, especially with minorities, but they have set a long-term goal for their own in-house algorithms to ensure a more refined and accurate facial-recognition system. The facial-recognition and check-in portion of the app were completed at the end of 2019.
“When people hear about this, I think that there is something that sort of just connects with them. Instead of an old, junky piece of tech in a box that is tied to somebody’s ankle, we can use a new sophisticated piece of technology in a phone that everyone has,” Sato said.
Bob Lundt, a former public defender in St. Louis, also is working on the project. Freecog’s two board members are retired St. Charles County Circuit Judge Rick Zerr and Peter A. Joy, a law professor and director of the criminal justice clinic at Washington University School of Law.
“A situation like Freecog comes in and really fills the gap and gives the judge the ability to really understand what someone is doing out on bond,” Zerr said. “… Freecog is an opportunity to use current, easily available technology to give the courts some feeling of comfort.”
Sato said prosecutors and judges have responded positively to the concept. He hopes to launch a pilot program in St. Charles County in the next year after the app is out of its development stage.
“We would love to have a large influx of capital. That’s all we would need to take this thing to the next step, and we are rapidly approaching the time for some pretty strenuous field testing,” Sato said. “So we don’t really have a timetable in place right now as to when we will be able to implement it.”
Sato said his team has developed a cost-savings, revenue-sharing model to produce Freecog.
“[That’s when] we realized we could save millions of dollars for Missouri counties for their jails and still make all the money we need to run this app and fully develop the tech and fully research the development,” he said.
While his team is focused on providing this service for Missouri courts, Sato said he sees no reason why Freecog couldn’t be adapted by other states because of its customizable nature. Similar services are available, he noted, but none offers the advanced options Freecog aims to provide.
That application hopes to solve this distinctly American problem of bail bond, Sato said.
Missouri is a promising place to test the waters with the new bond program, as it has the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the nation and spends $725,165,192 each year on corrections, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. In addition, the state has the fastest-growing female prison population in the nation.
With a rising number of Missourians incarcerated in jails and prisons, the ACLU said the state will need to spend $500 million to build two new prisons in approximately the next two years.
Also, the current bail bond system doesn’t affect only the state’s bottom line: It creates a wealth-based system of incarceration that negatively affects lower-income people, the ACLU noted.
Pretrial incarceration and bail bond bills make it difficult for people facing trial to keep their jobs and homes and care for their families — and for each $1 spent on corrections, an additional $10 in social costs are generated and usually thrust upon people to deal with in their communities, the ACLU said.
Michael Barrett, former director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, told the ACLU in April 2019 that 50 percent of the state prison population is made up of nonviolent offenders who are unlikely to present a threat to society if freed while awaiting trial.
While significant change in that system remains to be realized, Sato said he and his team hope Freecog can begin to chip away at the problem.
“We would love nothing more than to become obsolete,” he said. “We would love for the criminal justice system to change so radically that mass incarceration ends and it’s a thing of the past. We would love there to be as many apps to do this as there are for food to be delivered. That would be an incredible world.”