REPORT: Expanding Electronic Monitoring Not True Alternative to Pretrial Detention

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By The Vanguard Staff

SPRINGFIELD, IL – Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to “to end money-based pretrial detention with the implementation of the Pretrial Fairness Act. according to a report by Prison Policy Initiative.

Because of the Act, the Illinois Office of Statewide Pretrial Services announced the expansion of pretrial electronic monitoring (EM) to 70 of Illinois’ 102 counties, many of which did not have it before, said the PPI. 

“While Pretrial Services touts this as something to be celebrated, the advocates who originally fought for the Pretrial Fairness Act and other scholars have pointed out that this massive expansion of state control undermines the spirit of bail reform,” said the report.

The PPI cited the pretrial agency statement “reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what research and evidence shows about electronic monitoring.”

Michelle Alexander, legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow, recently explained in an “impassioned video, electronic monitoring is faulty technology that further embeds systemic injustices in communities of color, creates new avenues of harm, and does remarkably little to increase court compliance or public safety,” added PPI.

PPI concluded, “While this litany of the harms of electronic monitoring is expansive, it is far from exhaustive. As those directly impacted have told us time and again, there is no part of life that EM does not make more difficult, and as studies have shown there is little evidence to support EM as a viable alternative to incarceration. 

“These are facts the Office of Statewide Pretrial Services should have taken into consideration as Illinois began its move into the realm of Pretrial Fairness,” charged PPI.

PPI noted electronic monitoring is not evidence-based, and while electronic monitoring proponents “present the technology’s ability to do these things as a forgone conclusion, the reality is that few rigorous studies have been done to examine these claims.”

Citing a new study conducted by nonprofit research group MDRC, PPI said EM neither increased court appearances nor reduced new arrests. 

“As this study notes, people on EM may have more new arrests than those not monitored, as the intense scrutiny of people on EM spotlights even minor infractions that might otherwise go unremarked. 

“Researchers also note pretrial EM creates an entirely new path to incarceration via ‘technical violations,’ which have nothing to do with criminality or public safety, but rather with the impacted person’s ability to navigate a multitude of ambiguous and often draconian conditions.

PPI said in Los Angeles County between 2015 and 2021, 94 percent of people on EM who did not successfully complete EM were sent back to jail for technical violations rather than for a new arrest.

“People may even be charged with felony escape for violating conditions or tampering with the device, and serve years in prison even after being found innocent of the charges that garnered them pretrial EM to begin with,” said PPI in the report.

Further, statistics note electronic monitoring does not reduce jail populations, argued PPI.

“While EM programs are often depicted as replacing traditional brick-and-mortar incarceration, the reality is these programs are often used to augment and expand the reach of incarceration and may have little effect on the population of the jail itself.

“EM programs around the country have massively expanded, often in the wake of successful pretrial reform efforts. This has prompted advocates such as the No New SF Jails Coalition to include halting the expansion of EM in their decarceration demands, as they did when they finally closed the 402-bed jail at 850 Bryant in 2020.”

PPI added electronic monitoring uses faulty technology, noting proponents of EM also “downplay the reality that the technology itself is unreliable. Signal drift (the propensity of GPS to place people where they are not), interference from architecture, and data issues are widespread and persistent.”

Among other examples, PPI said a massive security breach with EM company Protocol “resulted in the private data of thousands under Chicago’s EM program being exposed online.

“None of this prevents monitored people from being woken up in the middle of the night to be harassed, handcuffed, and even arrested in their own home after being falsely accused of absconding. Ultimately, faith in EM is as misplaced as Milwaukee advocate Amari Jones’ GPS signal when it identified him as being in the middle of Lake Michigan.”

PPI said electronic monitoring creates huge financial burdens for many in already economically precarious positions, noting EM is “often paired with conditions that restrict people’s ability leave their homes, thus severely limiting their ability to secure and/or maintain employment. 

“People on EM may have to go through extremely complicated and lengthy processes just trying to gain approval to go to a job interview, and they may be able to work only on a fixed schedule or in a fixed location, precluding the flexibility required to work in industries like food service, waste management, or construction.”  

PPI said some jurisdictions, including Illinois, have “eliminated user fees for electronic monitoring, many programs charge anywhere from $1.50 to $47 per day, with a potential initial enrollment fee of up to $300 for the “privilege” of being imprisoned in one’s own home instead of in a jail or prison cell. 

“Some have challenged these rates as extortion, particularly as agreeing to pay these fees they can ill afford may be the only way some can get out of jail to take care of their children or receive medical care.”

Electronic monitoring limits access to healthcare “while exacerbating or creating physical and mental health issues,” added PPI, noting electronic monitoring doesn’t just jail people in their homes and strain their finances, it can also negatively impact their health—both physical and mental. People on EM often report being denied permission to simply go to the doctor or to the pharmacy to have life-saving prescriptions filled.”

And, added PPI, “devices themselves can be a source of acute physical and mental trauma. A survey of individuals subjected to EM by ICE found that an astonishing 90 percent experienced harm to their physical health. Those monitored may experience physical harms such as open sores and even electrical shocks. 

”Likewise, the negative impact on mental health created by the stigmatization and isolation imposed by the devices has often been noted by those subjected to EM, with some reporting depressive and even suicidal thoughts. Others have reported that EM can be a trigger for those combatting addiction issues, which could potentially lead not only to new offenses, but relapse, overdose, and even death.

PPI also noted electronic monitoring reinforces racial disparities and undermines families and communities of color because “the overwhelmingly Black and Brown communities” subjected to EM “impedes a person’s ability to take their kids to school or to doctor appointments, to engage in key family events such as the birth of the child or a funeral.

“(A)nd, as some have noted, (EM) has been used in an attempt to turn those who seek justice for their communities into ‘cautionary tales’ for others in order to undermine social justice movements.”

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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