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The rise of ankle monitors and house arrest during the pandemic

In Alameda County, young people on ankle monitors are required to charge them daily between 7 and 9 p.m. They must get permission 48 hours in advance from their probation officer to leave their house or go to non-pre-approved locations, making it difficult to attend after-school activities, pick up extra shifts at work, exercise or go to the drug store for a quick errand.

Alameda County changed its rules in April of last year to no longer charge youth with violations for small infractions of the electronic monitoring rules, said Ford, the probation officer. While he could not comment on Canal’s case, Ford added that electronic monitoring for youth in the county is court-ordered.

In other jurisdictions, the rules are even more strict. For adults in electronic monitors in Chicago, their homes are subject to warrantless searches, and wearers have to submit a written request 72 hours in advance to go anywhere other than pre-approved locations, meaning even stopping for gas can amount to a violation. Copies of the wearer’s pay stubs may need to be submitted to the sheriff’s office, too, according to a copy of the rules obtained by NBC News.

Morales, of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, said that for minor infractions of the ankle monitor rules, offenders are issued a warning, but a person can be reincarcerated for multiple violations. Morales also said the 72-hour advance request for additional movement is necessary because of the high volume of requests the department has to process from people on ankle monitors.

Pay per day

Though electronic monitoring is cheaper for municipalities and states than jail, the cost of the surveillance device is often passed on to the people wearing them. And during the pandemic, when millions of people lost their jobs and unemployment benefits were backlogged, that cost added up.

In at least 30 states, agencies require those who are placed in an electronic monitor to pay between $2 and $20 a day to wear one, not including activation fees that some counties tack on, according to Weisburd’s research. In areas like Baltimore County, Maryland, the hundreds of dollars a month people assigned to ankle monitors awaiting trial were paying as court dates continued to be delayed due to the pandemic became such a burden that the county moved to eliminate ankle monitor fees altogether.

Ankle monitors can be so expensive that some people in the system must choose between paying rent or their electronic monitor fees, according to Kilgore, with Challenging E-Carceration. Those fees are sometimes paid directly to the private companies contracted to provide the ankle monitors by law enforcement. Kilgore also wore an ankle monitor for a year as a condition of his parole.

While the cost of incarceration is higher than the cost of an ankle monitor and being on house arrest for many is a better option than being in jail, in places like Chicago, the majority of people who are on electronic monitoring are awaiting trial and have yet to be convicted. But unlike other jurisdictions, Cook County does not charge offenders.

“People are supposed to have a presumption of innocence,” said Patrice James, director of community justice at the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “But when you put people on electronic monitoring, you’ve not solved the incarceration problem. It just shifts the jail cell to inside our communities, inside our apartment complexes and to our residential blocks.”

Technical difficulties

Like so many electronics, ankle monitors also don’t always work.

When the electronic monitor senses a violation, whether from not being charged at the right time or when someone steps outside their house at the wrong time, the company running the monitor notifies law enforcement. Then officers may be sent to the wearer’s home or work.

With the dramatic increase of people on ankle monitors during the pandemic in Chicago, local watchdogs say they’re seeing a rise in violations for small infractions. Matthew McLoughlin, an organizer with the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice, said he’s also seen an increase in more false violations and technical glitches for people whose ankle monitors rely on GPS tracking.

“I was talking to a gentleman who had an escape case because he was late getting home from work and had to charge the monitor. He was in Zoom court when they told him they were filing an escape case against him,” McLoughlin said.

Still, Joseph Russo, a board member of the American Parole and Probation Association, said overall, electronic monitors can be a reliable tool for tracking offenders who need a high level of supervision and they can help link people to crimes. One of the rioters who investigators say broke into the Capitol in January was caught because he was wearing an ankle monitor.

“Some people might be deterred who know their location might be tracked. But we’re not dealing with folks who always apply rational thinking to their behaviors,” Russo said. “There’s countless news reports of people being tracked back to murders and other crimes based on their ankle bracelets.”

Growing up

Evelyn Canal now is a Dream Beyond Bars fellow with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, a nonprofit organization that provides support and advocates to end youth incarceration and criminalization in California. She’s working with the group to pass the Juvenile Justice Realignment bill, which determines what will happen to incarcerated youth in California after state facilities are closed by 2023.

She’s also working to advocate for increased funding for California’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration, which she said could have helped her when she was having trouble with her probation officers and her ankle monitor and felt there was nowhere to turn.

From a criminal justice reform perspective, Weisburd, the law professor, said there’s no empirical evidence that the technology is rehabilitative and that “more often than not people are both on monitors and are in custody because they cycle in and out on small violations.”

“Viewing electronic surveillance as an alternative to incarceration furthers and perpetuates a dangerous false binary between incarceration or monitoring and ignores an obvious third option, which is freedom,” she said.

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