The Explosion of Electronic Monitoring

Electric Monitoring is a form of digital incarceration, usually seen with ankle or wrist bracelets, to monitor and track criminals serving a sentence outside of prison. These can be used for criminals awaiting trial, juveniles, or criminals with lesser crimes. Law officials believe the use of EM gives prisons the ability to avoid overcrowding and high expenses.

The American criminal justice system has used electronic monitoring (EM) for over 40 years. Because of Covid-19, the use of EM has increased more than ever in prisons to reduce overcrowding and stop the spread of the virus. Before COVID, 27 people were electronically monitored pre-trial in Harris County, Texas. By 2021, this number had shot to over 4,000 by 2021. Federal prisons also deployed monitors at the height of the pandemic after releasing over 40,000 people between March 2020 and 2022. According to data from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), cellphone-based monitors increased from 86,000 in December 2020 to over 247,000 in September 2022.

A Different Form of Incarceration

While information about the impact of EMs on the individuals used is limited, it has attracted some interest among researchers and human rights groups seeking to see the use of these devices abolished.

Illinois has seen one of the most spirited fights against EMs, particularly in Cook County, since 2017, thanks to abolitionist groups such as Chicago Community Bond Fund, Pre-trial Justice Network, End Money Bond, and the Illinois Coalition.

By referencing the experiences of EM survivors such as Timothy Williams and Lavette Mayes, who were under pre-trial monitoring, the Chicago Community Bond Fund and its allies reject the idea that EMs is an alternative to incarceration. Instead, these groups define using EMs as home as “home incarceration.”

Gains in the War against EMs

The efforts of the EM abolition groups inspired more researchers to look into the facts of pretrial electronic monitoring. One of the most notable works concerning the war against EM was the Chicago Appleseed document 10 Facts about Pretrial Electronic Monitoring in Cook County, debunking two main myths about pretrial electronic monitoring. The first myth is that pre-trial EM reduces cases of not appearing in court. The second myth is that the people released on EM will likely commit other crimes.

After ten facts, another more nationally focused research project dubbed Cages without Bars, directed by Patrice James of Shriver Center, with Sarah Staudt leading the research followed.

The report showed that EM usage varied widely with jurisdiction, with Bernalillo County, New Mexico having only 100 people on EMs, while Cook County had 3,400 individuals. This difference resulted from various factors, including local criminal justice histories, budgetary decisions, and criteria and policies for placing people on EMs.

EM Programs Are Punitive

Despite the differences in approach to EMs, all jurisdictions had several things in common regarding the use of EMs. First, all programs were punitive, with the most punitive aspect being that they were used as part of home arrest, heavily restricting the movement of an individual.

In addition, EMs are found to have a significant psychological toll on the people and associated families being monitored. These prisoners fear the gadget malfunctioning, resulting in erroneous reporting that could put them back in jail. Moreover, those with EM fear the humiliation the monitor could cause if the alarm goes off in public.

No Data to Prove It Works

“Despite the widespread use of EMs, there has never been any conclusive evidence that they successfully reduce recidivism. Many jurisdictions simply fail to understand these devices’ impact on a wearer,” says Attorney Thomas Addair of Addair Law.

According to the authors of Cages without Bars, eliminating EMs entirely may be a long shot. But with increased activism and reforms, it is possible to create less harmful policies and provide pre-trial defendants with options that offer ample basic human freedoms.

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