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Electronic monitoring of defendents isn't true reform

At first glance, the use of electronic monitoring to track the whereabouts of a person facing criminal charges seems like a much preferable alternative to pre-trial incarceration. It allows defendants to be released from jail to confinement in their homes on the condition that they wear ankle monitors or other surveillance devices that track and record them.

The idea, touted by politicians as a way to reduce the number of those incarcerated to save money, seems to be catching on, with cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston all seeing a rise in its use. But on closer inspection, electronic monitoring is not the catch-all reform that it’s often made out to be.

First, electronic monitoring is not so much an alternative to incarceration as it is an alternative form of incarceration. All that electronic monitoring changes is the location where the incarceration is taking place.

Under electronic monitoring, defendants are surveilled constantly (many monitoring devices come with surveillance microphones attached), and they are confined to their homes unless they receive pre-approval to go out. Pre-approval often must be sought days in advance and is inconsistently granted even for the most routine activities.

During my time working as an academic adviser to incarcerated people, there were a number of occasions when defendants on electronic monitoring told me they had been forced to fail their slate of classes for the semester because they could not obtain permission to attend. Further, they were frequently denied permission to go to work, causing them to lose their jobs and become unable to financially support themselves.

Much like a traditional prison, electronic monitoring restricts defendants’ movements, revokes their privacy, and jeopardizes their jobs and social relations.

Moreover, there are other, less invasive methods, like weekly meetings with correctional officers and telephone call check-ins, that can ensure court appearances. Electronic monitors are likely not more effective than these methods, since if someone wants to skip a court date and go on the run, these monitors can be easily cut with a pair of scissors.

And when proponents of monitoring argue that it saves money, what they are conveniently leaving out is the way in which it does so — namely, that instead of the state spending public funds to house defendants in jail, defendants’ home incarceration is outsourced to private electronic monitoring companies who in turn fund these programs by charging defendants up to hundreds of dollars a month in fees.

It means that defendants, who historically are those most poorly positioned to do so, must bear the financial burden for their own pretrial incarceration before they even have a chance to prove their innocence.

In my job as a reporter with the court watchdog Davis Vanguard, I have often watched as defendants on trial racked up further criminal charges due to incredibly trivial electronic monitoring infractions like forgetting to charge their ankle monitor or accidentally going outside the range of their monitor to pick up their mail.

Companies like Attenti and BI Inc. have made millions of dollars by siphoning monitoring fees from primarily low-income, minority communities, further roping defendants into the prison system due to minor infractions that increase prison populations and add to private prison companies’ profits.

Electronic monitoring is so dangerous precisely because it provides the illusion of reform to the criminal justice system. We must instead seek real, actual reforms to reduce incarceration.

Dario McCarty is an advocate and activist for criminal justice reform who has worked at nonprofits Hip Hop for Change and The Underground Scholars Initiative. He works as a court reporter for the court watchdog Davis Vanguard. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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