The use of electronic monitoring (EM) devices in the United States has more than doubled in the past decade, with more than 125,000 wearing such tracking devices in 2016, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report.
Local governments use EM in a variety of contexts, including as a condition of pretrial release or probation and for youth offenders.
At least 51 of 58 California counties have EM programs, according to a recent study by the Samuelson Law Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley and East Bay Community Law Center (Berkeley Study).
For-profit companies are the main providers of EM devices and monitoring technology. Securus is one of the largest. Through its subsidiary, Satellite Tracking of People (STOP), Securus electronically monitors more than 6,000 people for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), according to In These Times.
For many local governments, EM offers a lower-cost alternative to incarceration. A 2013 study of California high-risk offenders found that parolees fitted with a GPS device had a 38 percent lower recidivism rate than those without the devices, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice.
Criminal justice advocates and the courts, on the other hand, have serious concerns about the shifting of costs, expansive use and privacy related to use of EM technology.
“Rather than advancing a more equitable and effective criminal justice system, electronic monitoring’s enormous and unchecked capacities transform entire communities into open-air jails, intentionally depriving a whole class of people of liberty and privacy even as its efficacy, necessity and appropriateness go entirely unchallenged,” said activist Rebecca Brown, the director of Reentry Solutions Group, reported In These Times.
The most common form of EM deployed by local government is house arrest. However, the rapid evolution of tracking technology allows for varying levels of control. A person may be confined to a neighborhood, a block or a house, depending on the “risk assessment” of that individual.
This is already happening with exclusion zones programmed into the ankle monitors of some individuals with sex offense or gang histories. In New York City, some alleged gang members have a GPS monitor without house arrest, according to Prison Legal News. The device is programmed to keep them out of certain parts of the city at certain times of the day.
In California, Santa Barbara County uses GPS to create inclusion/exclusion zones. At least 12 other counties reference the use of inclusion or exclusion zones in their terms and conditions or policy documents, according to the Berkeley Study.
There are significant concerns about the impact of these EM programs on low-income families. Many counties require families to pay to participate in an EM program, often requiring they pay a daily, weekly or monthly fee. Many counties also require that youth pay for any lost or damaged equipment, potentially burdening the family with thousands of dollars in costs, according to the Berkeley Study.
“Know your rights,” say ad- vocates as many of these EM programs have a mechanism to opt out of charges where the participant can demonstrate their inability to pay for their participation in an electronic monitoring program.
Privacy risks from deploying this technology are a concern by many interested parties. “All too often, new police surveillance tools…slowly – but surely – (are) expanded…We’ve seen it with DNA collection. And now we’re starting to see it with GPS tracking,” warned the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading advocate of electronic privacy.
The Supreme Court has emphasized in recent years the extent to which electronic tracking devices raise new and unique privacy concerns. “GPS monitoring…may alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society,” the court concluded in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400, 416 (2012) (Sotomayor, J., concurring).