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Messenger: Company that helps track people awaiting trial in St. Louis County pitches app to help with pandemic
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Messenger: Company that helps track people awaiting trial in St. Louis County pitches app to help with pandemic

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St. Louis County Justice Center

A holding area in the St. Louis County Justice Center is shown in this 2005 file photo.

A couple of months ago, St. Louis County started a pilot project intended to reduce costs to jail detainees and, eventually, reduce the number of men and women stuck behind bars awaiting trial.

Gone were the $300-a-month bulky ankle bracelets sold by private probation companies.

In was a new phone app called RePath, which could track a person’s movements, send reminders to make court appointments, and even be available for video chat if necessary. Best of all: Pretrial defendants weren’t being nickeled-and-dimed with additional costs.

The state budget funded the pilot project, and Missouri officials intend to expand its use to jails throughout the state.

The pilot project with Kansas City-based eHawk has taken on new importance amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the past week, officials from St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s office, circuit court judges, Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell and others have been meeting to figure out a safe way to reduce the jail population further as experts believe jails maintain a high risk of spreading COVID-19, both to inmates and the community as staff, nurses and other people come and go.

Ted Green, the chief operating officer and general counsel for eHawk, calls jails a “time bomb” when it comes to COVID-19. That’s why the company is now adapting the phone app to help jail officials if they decide to accelerate the release of inmates in the jail.

“Jails represent a significant threat for contagious outbreaks,” Green wrote to Page last week. “With their close quarters, shared air and common areas, jails act like cruise ships stationed in some of our largest cities. … The risks, of course, threaten not only those incarcerated in the facility, but staff, their families and the public at large.”

This is a problem across the nation.

It’s why prosecutors such as Bell and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner are planning to issue more summonses in lieu of putting people in jail to try to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It’s why governors and prosecutors around the country are working to reduce jail populations. It’s why St. Louis County Presiding Judge Michael Burton has asked all county circuit judges to expedite felony pleas, recall warrants issued for technical violations of probation, revisit all bonds on nonviolent offenses and move cases forward on the docket as much as possible.

And it’s why eHawk is developing a new app that it hopes will help track not just people who are incarcerated but perhaps other people who are quarantined as a result of the coronavirus.

The app, called RZero, would send public health information to users, provide location warnings, set curfews and inclusion zones, and warn users or health officials if people travel outside the zone.

Green has been in conversations with the Page administration to expand the use of the company’s app — which currently is being provided to the county for free — for help dealing with the expected growth of government-imposed quarantines.

County officials declined comment on the discussions.

“Given the quarantine failure relating to Missouri’s first case, we believe that this application has the chance to help with the CDC’s goal of ‘flattening the curve,’” Green says.

In that case, in which a college student was diagnosed with COVID-19, county officials said they had asked the family to quarantine in their home. The attorney for the family disputes that. Regardless, the father and sister of the patient attended a father-daughter dance at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, and that led to the closure of two private schools, and letters from several other schools to parents indicating that students who attended the dance or a pre-dance party should stay home.

Since then, of course, all schools in the St. Louis region have shut down.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases is rising each day.

As community isolation becomes the new normal, it’s possible that a phone app could contribute to keeping us all a little more informed, a little safer. And it’s not just a Missouri company that is working on this.

This week, The Washington Post was first to report that the federal government is working with major technology companies like Google and Facebook to develop such technology.

“We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps,” a Google spokesman said in a statement emailed to the Post-Dispatch. Such an app “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement or contacts,” he added.

On Wednesday, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced the state’s first coronavirus-related death, the day after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the first death in his state.

Time is of the essence.

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