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A New Path Forward for Community Supervision

The 3G Sunset could be a chance to leave harmful electronic monitoring practices behind.

In 2022, every major wireless carrier will shut down their 3G networks in what is known as the “3G Sunset.” The move will allow companies to allocate more resources to operating and maintaining their faster 4G and 5G networks. However, it will also render 3G-reliant devices obsolete. Many electronic monitoring devices — ankle bracelets and other wearable GPS devices used to track people in the immigration and justice systems — will be affected by the change, which could negatively impact people involved in the criminal legal system.

With a number of these monitoring devices poised to become unusable, there is a vacancy for new developments in community supervision. Instead of using the 3G Sunset as an opening to introduce modernized, high-tech electronic monitoring devices, local governments and federal agencies should take the opportunity to move away from the invasive and burdensome practice of electronic monitoring.

Once touted as a humane alternative to incarceration, electronic monitoring subjects people to excessive, onerous requirements and is now widely viewed as “the most restrictive form of government surveillance and control” after prison. The restrictions faced by those under monitoring are difficult to comply with and can hinder successful reentry. Many people struggle to find and maintain employment due to the stigma associated with their electronic monitors, and others struggle to schedule work shifts around mandatory curfews and travel limitations. These rules can even prevent people from receiving adequate medical care, as electronic monitors are incompatible with X-rays and MRI machines. Navigating the dizzying array of requirements significantly impacts people’s mental health and reentry prospects.

Further compounding the problem, when a person cannot abide by the terms of their supervision, they are often incarcerated — even if they are not a threat to public safety. One study in Los Angeles County found that 94 percent of people on pretrial release who were terminated from electronic monitoring were incarcerated not for committing new crimes but for violating a requirement of supervision, such as missing curfew. The rules and punishments associated with electronic monitoring have led many people subjected to electronic monitoring to view the devices as digital shackles.

Electronic monitoring also exacts a steep financial toll on those under supervision. Local courts often force people to pay the costs of their own supervision — either directly to their local courts or to a company contracted with the courts. These costs can include a one-time set-up fee as high as $200 and daily supervision fees ranging from $5 to $20 a day (but occasionally going as high as $40 a day). These fees, which would be harmful to many American families, can be especially detrimental to those whose lifetime earnings are reduced by justice system involvement. At best, user-funded electronic monitoring is a significant financial burden; at worst, it can result in incarceration for failure to pay.

Making matters worse, it is unclear if electronic monitoring even improves rates of court appearances or reduces rearrests. A recent study in Cook County, Illinois, showed that a decline in electronic monitoring usage did not substantially change either the percentage of felony defendants who appeared in bond court on time or the rates of rearrests for new offenses. There is also no definitive evidence that electronic monitoring reduces recidivism for those on parole or post-release supervision. In fact, some studies show that intensive monitoring of people deemed low-risk, as is common practice in some jurisdictions, can actually increase recidivism. Data collection on the effectiveness of electronic monitoring is extremely limited, but the evidence available suggests that it may not fulfill its purported purpose.

Despite the numerous harms of electronic monitoring and the lack of evidence of its effectiveness, many states and private companies are using the 3G Sunset as the impetus to phase out old devices and introduce new, technologically advanced monitoring devices. Michigan spent $4.6 million in 2020 upgrading electronic monitoring devices, and Sentinel Advantage — an electronic monitoring company that contracts with local courts — paid $37.6 million to purchase a 4G electronic monitoring company in April. These new devices are more invasive than their predecessors, including voice command features, improved geofencing capabilities, and options for officers to send messages for “positive reinforcement.”

Distributing the updated technology will be expensive, and these increased costs will likely be passed on to those under supervision. The cost of electronic monitoring is already unmanageably high for many, and the potential increase in fees to cover new devices will only serve to push people deeper into economic insecurity.

Instead of normalizing upgraded tracking devices or transitioning to alternative methods of intensive monitoring — as some jurisdictions and immigrant monitoring programs have — courts and policymakers should implement more humane methods of community supervision. Studies have shown that supportive interventions like behavioral therapies, programming, and access to resources are successful in reducing a variety of negative outcomes including future offending and school suspensions. Using tactics like these will reduce the harm caused by the criminal justice system and increase the likelihood of successful reentry.

The 3G Sunset represents a potential turning point: we can either further entrench ourselves in the harmful practices of the past or turn the tide of the criminal justice system away from invasive surveillance. It is time to learn from our mistakes and embrace a new path forward.