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How Electronic Monitoring Incentivizes Prolonged Punishment

An innovative method to help reduce mass incarceration is often derailed by outrageous fees and onerous rules that can send people back to prison.

View the entire How Perverse Financial Incentives Warp the Criminal Justice System series

We’re now living in a moment when elec­ted lead­ers on both sides of the aisle think excess­ive incar­cer­a­tion with scant public safety rationale is bad policy. To reduce bloated pris­ons and jails — hous­ing upwards of 2.2 million people — many communit­ies across the coun­try are allow­ing people to remain in the community instead of behind bars. This includes people await­ing trial, sentenced to proba­tion, or released on parole. Today, nearly 4 million people are under some form of correc­tional control in the community.

When people are placed under community super­vi­sion as a condi­tion of being out of jail or prison, local govern­ments some­times will put a GPS monitor on their body (usually their ankle or wrist) to constantly track their where­abouts 24 hours a day. For people await­ing trial, this tech­no­logy, commonly known as elec­tronic monit­or­ing, is designed to ensure people show up to court. And for people who have been convicted of a crime and whom govern­ments have determ­ined pose a higher risk of reoffend­ing, elec­tronic monit­or­ing may allow them to serve their sentence in the community and avoid a term of impris­on­ment. In either case, elec­tronic monit­or­ing offers more free­dom of move­ment than pris­ons and jails while aiming to reduce recidiv­ism and advance public safety.

Before Covid-19, on any given day, the United States used elec­tronic-monit­or­ing devices on more than 125,000 people, and that figure does­n’t include over 38,000 more outfit­ted with ankle monit­ors by U.S. Immig­ra­tion and Customs Enforce­ment. These numbers have likely risen due to Covid-19 early-release programs.

Yet innov­at­ive as this approach may be, it’s far from perfect. Local­it­ies that use elec­tronic monit­or­ing often contract with for-profit firms to super­vise people. These monit­or­ing services, though cheaper than incar­cer­a­tion, are still expens­ive. But rather than charge the govern­ments, in most muni­cip­al­it­ies that use elec­tronic monit­or­ing, these compan­ies charge the people being super­vised.

And there’s the prob­lem. Fees tied to this round-the-clock surveil­lance are often steep, if not over­whelm­ing. Normally the rates range from $150 per month to an uncon­scion­able $900 per month. Some­times it’s as high as $1,200, which can easily exceed a person’s monthly rent. None of that includes the star­tup fee, which can be up to $200. And in some instances, if a person loses or damages their track­ing device, they will be required to pay addi­tional costs that can amount to hundreds of dollars.

Given the lower incomes of most people entangled within the crim­inal legal system, many struggle to keep up with these astro­nom­ical fees which can be an insur­mount­able obstacle. Indeed, in some instances, a person facing the choice of elec­tronic monit­or­ing or incar­cer­a­tion might well choose incar­cer­a­tion because it’s cheaper.

And even if a person agrees to elec­tronic monit­or­ing to remain in the community, they can still land behind bars because of it. People on elec­tronic monit­or­ing must follow numer­ous rules that are often oner­ous, broad, and ambigu­ous. These restric­tions cover a wide range of areas, includ­ing employ­ment, curfew, and exclu­sion zones. They even extend to device char­ging and inter­ac­tions with friends, family, and community members.

The rules can make it diffi­cult for people to find and keep jobs. The prob­lem is so bad that to cover the costs of their monit­or­ing fees, some people have even purportedly sold their posses­sions and blood plasma. And if those on elec­tronic monit­or­ing slip up and fail to follow any one of the dizzy­ing number of rules, they risk punish­ment, includ­ing incar­cer­a­tion. So it’s perhaps not surpris­ing that tech­nical rule viol­a­tions rather than new crim­inal offenses often drive rein­car­cer­a­tion.

So what do we do?

A recent Bren­nan Center report proposes some solu­tions. The clearest one is to require local govern­ments, not people being super­vised, to pay fees asso­ci­ated with monit­or­ing. Elim­in­at­ing these fees for people under super­vi­sion will help to reduce the like­li­hood of being trapped in cycles of debt and incar­cer­a­tion. Some local­it­ies — like San Fran­cisco County, Cali­for­nia, and Baltimore County, Mary­land — have already taken this step.

The goal of community super­vi­sion should be help­ing people to be product­ive members of our soci­ety by allow­ing them to continue work­ing, promot­ing community engage­ment, and by enabling them to main­tain rela­tion­ships with those closest to them.

People await­ing trial or attempt­ing to reenter soci­ety should­n’t have to deal with the unne­ces­sary finan­cial imped­i­ments that come with elec­tronic monit­or­ing. In our quest to reduce the sheer volume of people in pris­ons and jails, aiming to dismantle mass human confine­ment, we must also ensure that altern­at­ives to incar­cer­a­tion do not do harm as well.