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Delayed trials, home detention and hundreds of dollars in ankle-monitoring costs

Irvin Haygood at his Essex apartment, with receipts for ankle monitoring. His home detention had been extended amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Irvin Haygood at his Essex apartment, with receipts for ankle monitoring. His home detention had been extended amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)
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BALTIMORE — Irvin Haygood worried more each day. Where would he get the money?

A judge had ordered the little box on his ankle; it cost him $87 a week — about $375 a month. The GPS tracker was to make sure he showed up to stand trial for assault. Except that the coronavirus pandemic left his trial suspended indefinitely. The cost piled up, with no end in sight.

When his anxiety became overwhelming, Haygood ran to the bathroom and threw up.

People like Haygood remain mired in a criminal justice system that has ground to a halt amid the pandemic. More than 175 days have passed since the state’s chief judge suspended jury trials across Maryland. Some defendants have been locked up for months awaiting trial. Others, such as Haygood, were released on house arrest, only to pay thousands of dollars for an ankle bracelet.

The 39-year-old Essex man, a career State Highway Administration worker, said he thought he would be sent back to jail if he fell behind on his payments.

“It’s entrapment,” he said. “I didn’t have no money. I didn’t have nowhere to turn. . . . If I can’t pay the home detention, I’m going back to the jail where the corona is.”

An attorney for the home-detention company says the firm has never sent someone to jail for missing a payment.

Still, the situation has alarmed public defenders in Baltimore and elsewhere. They are gathering names of people awaiting trial on private home detention. The names will be submitted to the courts with a request that judges prioritize these cases once jury trials resume, said Marianne Lima, who oversees pretrial litigation for the city’s public defender office.

Jury trials are scheduled to resume statewide Oct. 5.

Hundreds of people remain on private home detention in Baltimore alone, Lima said. The companies charge them anywhere from $11 to $17 a day.

“Their business is booming,” she said. “There are a lot of people who can’t pay who just aren’t informing their attorneys because they’re terrified of going back to jail.”

The Maryland Senate’s judicial committee held meetings in May to consider problems the virus has caused the criminal justice system. The senators issued a report with recommendations, including urging state and local governments to cover fees for home monitoring. They wrote that the fees cause “unnecessary hardship.”

State Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) serves on the committee and says she hasn’t heard yet whether any jurisdictions would adopt the recommendation.

“Making sure that cost is not a barrier to pretrial freedom is essential,” she said.

State law generally requires a defendant to be tried within 180 days, but that has been suspended amid the virus, frustrating defense attorneys who watch their clients sitting in jail or paying for home detention month after month.

“When someone is put on home detention right now, it’s really a sentence to an indefinite trial date,” said Matthew Zernhelt, legal director for the nonprofit group Baltimore Action Legal Team, or BALT, which pays home monitoring fees for about 100 people. “They’re paying indefinitely, or they’re sitting in jail in COVID conditions.”

Still, there aren’t easy solutions. Other people have expressed fears about returning to a crowded courtroom. Cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Baltimore Circuit Court; at least two sheriff’s deputies contracted the virus.

In announcing plans to unionize, public defenders said they worried about returning to a courtroom and exposing themselves to the virus. The U.S. District Court in Baltimore resumed jury trials Monday, with a judge wearing a face shield on the bench.

In Maryland, a judge may order defendants to house arrest as they wait for their day in court or serve their sentence. In some cases, jail officials themselves will monitor defendants.

But this job usually falls to a niche industry of private home monitoring companies. State authorities license three such companies, including Advantage Sentencing Alternative Programs of Towson. Known as ASAP Home Detention, the firm hired more staff to handle the workload during the pandemic, the company’s lawyer said.

“They certainly have had and seen an increase, a large increase, in the number of individuals that they have on home monitoring,” said Gregg Bernstein, their lawyer and former Baltimore state’s attorney.

He was not able to say how many more. The company directed all questions to Bernstein. He declined to discuss ASAP’s fees, saying the figures are proprietary. Bernstein, however, did say the company tries to accommodate any defendant who struggles to pay.

“ASAP will work with them to do a payment plan or in some instances suspend a collection,” Bernstein said. “They’re certainly sensitive to those issues.”

Coronavirus outbreaks have run rampant behind bars, sickening hundreds of guards and inmates in New York prisons, including the Rikers Island jail as well as the Cook County jail in Chicago, and alarming judges and attorneys across the country. State authorities have reported more than 1,100 cases of the coronavirus in Maryland prisons. At least eight inmates have died here of complications of the virus.

In March, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that she would dismiss charges against anyone awaiting trial for drug possession, distribution and other nonviolent crimes — an effort to reduce the population behind bars in Maryland. Judges have taken up the effort, too. They’re releasing for home monitoring about 12 or 20 people, said Lima, the public defender.

Zernhelt, of BALT, said such releases have increased three to fourfold since the virus.

Baltimore County judges, too, are granting home detention more often since the virus, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said.

“There has been an increase in home detention, and it’s just a fact of life that if the defendant wants the advantage of not being in jail, then they have to pay for it,” he said.

One of the most common criminal charges in Baltimore is second-degree assault, generally a misdemeanor in which injuries aren’t life-threatening. It’s also a charge frequently dismissed before trial. In 2018, a year in which most cases have concluded, police and prosecutors charged people with second-degree assault nearly 7,000 times, according to the nonprofit Open Justice Baltimore. More than three-quarters of those charges were dismissed before trial.

Those people still have to pay for the days they wore an ankle bracelet, Zernhelt said.

The cost came to about $3,500 for Haygood in Baltimore County. He spent nearly nine months on home detention while awaiting trial for assault, gun and drug charges. He had worked 20 years cleaning and repairing the roads for the State Highway Administration, but says he lost his job when he was locked up and unable to make it to work.

A woman called police April 2, 2019, saying he pulled a gun and threatened her during a domestic argument. Haygood disputes her account. When officers searched his Essex apartment for the gun — a handgun registered to Haygood — they also found Xanax and cocaine, police wrote in charging documents.

They charged him last year with eight crimes; he faced more than 25 years in prison.

Initially, he was held without bail and set for trial last September. Then his trial was postponed and he was released in November on home monitoring. He was waiting for trial when the coronavirus descended.

Haygood said he was paying nearly $400 a month in home monitoring fees. He borrowed money, burned through his savings, then used unemployment benefits from his career with the state. Haygood said he would have been permitted to drive to and from work, but not to go job hunting. He couldn’t get work.

“The judge said, basically, if you can’t pay, you’re going back to jail on no bail,” he said. “I was just in a bad place. I had a breakdown.”

In July, his federal unemployment payments of $600 a week ended. Haygood became desperate.

Prosecutors offered him a deal. He still disputes the charges, but he submitted an Alford plea last month to one misdemeanor count of second-degree assault. With an Alford plea, a defendant maintains his innocence but acknowledges there’s enough evidence to convict him. Prosecutors dropped the other seven charges.

“I couldn’t pay for the home detention no longer,” Haygood said. “So it’s either take the plea deal and stay free or go back to jail and fight the charge. It don’t make sense to go to jail just to fight a charge.”

Haygood was sentenced to three years of probation. On his way home from court, he made one stop in Towson.

He went to the office of ASAP Home Detention to turn in the box on his ankle. Then he paid his final bill, $108 for his last nine days on the box.

— Baltimore Sun