October 18, 2019
The criminal justice system is in the midst of a seismic shift in priorities. Ideas that not so long ago would have been considered radical are now mainstream.
Change can be positive, but it can also have unintended consequences. Electronic monitoring is a prime example. Electronic monitoring was introduced in the 1960s. Ralph Gable, a student at Harvard University patented a device derived from surplus military tracking equipment to verify his teacher’s theory of positive reinforcement.
Ironically, Gable’s foray into electronic monitoring was intended to do the opposite of what it does today. Gable used monitoring to reward probationers who followed the rules, as opposed to today’s focus of penalizing noncompliance.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have joined in the condemnation of incarceration rates. America incarcerates more people for longer periods of time than nearly every other country in the world. Lawmakers have looked to electronic monitoring as a safe and cost-effective alternative to prison and jail. The use of monitors increased dramatically between 1980 and 2016. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, probation and parole populations grew by 239% during that period.
Ralph Gable’s brother Paul Gable wrote, “Monitoring provides a convenient sentencing alternative because it is a punishment less harsh than incarceration but more strict than minimally supervised probation.”
The “reform” brought about by electronic monitoring has brought about new problems.
For instance, using electronic monitoring to supervise people while awaiting trial. Many criminal justice practitioners malign the cash bail system as unjust and particularly harmful to the economically disadvantaged.
A defendant is faced with posting bond in the amount of $5,000. He may have to choose between paying a surety bond of $350 or pay for installation and monthly rental of an electronic monitor.
The initial monitoring fee is $100, plus $50 per month to rent the monitor. After six months, the monitoring cost has exceeded the bond amount. If a defendant fails to pay one month, she may have her bond revoked ending up where she started - in jail. She may also have her bond revoked for drinking, or not working - things that wouldn’t otherwise affect someone on a straight monetary bond.
When it comes to bail, judges are a little gun-shy. Bail is not a big deal until a case goes bad. A defendant on bail awaiting trial harms another person. Electronic monitoring is a convenient fall back for judges. If a defendant harms an innocent person while awaiting trial, a judge can point the finger at the probation office or private vendor who is “supervising” the defendant.
The concern doesn’t stop pretrial. After sentencing, an offender may be put on electronic monitoring in lieu of incarceration. Those costs will be added to the court cost and fines, often burying a parolee in debt. Samantha Malamed of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently wrote about a Philadelphia woman on her 15th year of probation for a 2003 theft - her only criminal conviction.
Malamed wrote, ”‘Case to close once restitution is paid in full,’ the docket noted, ordering payments at a rate of $75 per month toward a total of $40,939. If she continues paying at that rate, she will remain on probation for an additional 45 years, until she’s 104 years old.”
The criminal justice system itself creates a cycle of poverty that is nearly impossible to overcome.
What’s worse is who is monitoring the electric monitor? A monitor can be used to recreate an offender’s location or even alert someone when the offender goes to a forbidden location, but it would literally take a workforce of thousands to monitor offenders in real time, in any meaningful way.
According to Ava Kofman writing in ProPublica, “Critics of monitors contend that their public-safety appeal is illusory: If defendants are intent on harming someone or skipping town, the bracelet, which can be easily removed with a pair of scissors, would not stop them.”
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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