Remember when you were a teenager? Did you ever hang out at the mall with friends, occasionally cut class or do other impulsive things with very little thought about the consequences? These actions probably drove adults crazy, but you were doing exactly what you were supposed to be doing — you were being a teenager. Healthy adolescent development includes trying new things, testing and creating limits and boundaries, taking risks, acting impulsively and orienting more toward peer groups and peer group culture.
I work with young people at the RYSE Center who hang with their friends at the mall, may miss curfew by a few minutes because they were down the street talking to friends or take quick trips to the neighborhood store for their mom. However, for youth who wear an electronic ankle monitor, their typical teenage actions can lead to a violation of their probation.
RYSE engages youth and young adults ages 13-21 in programming that includes direct services, education and career awareness, leadership and community building, organizing, health and wellness and media, arts and culture. Our work, rooted in our Theory of Liberation, focuses on decreasing trauma in youths’ lives and building systems that are loving and welcoming to young people, while empowering them to navigate their liberation. The Education and Justice Department works to help RYSE members disrupt the inequitable education and justice systems they navigate daily, so that they can be seen and appreciated as the assets they are to their communities.
Nabbed for bad charging
For too many of our members, they tread two systems (education and criminal) that don’t feel welcoming, supportive, rehabilitative or restorative. Every day we see firsthand how long stints on probation and electronic monitoring (EM) can weigh on a young person’s spirit, ranging from the sheer physical discomfort of the monitor, to being confined inside the house, to the stigma that follows its wearer. Their peers and teachers treat them a little differently because they caught a glimpse of their electronic monitoring device.
Additionally, many young people on electronic monitoring can end up back in custody for minor monitoring violations. Consequently, minor violations can further interrupt school, family and other life activities that build a young person’s capacity to navigate successfully through their lives. For example, improperly charging one’s electronic monitoring device can lead to a violation.
As advocates working on behalf of youth, it is our duty to call into question any policy or practice that has the potential to harm or impact them negatively. We must question whether or not young people’s safety, agency and healing are supported by the paths these policies lay out for them. To be clear, I’m not necessarily arguing that electronic monitoring is an ineffective alternative to incarceration. However, electronic monitoring is not the cure-all to incarceration and a deeper dive into its utilization, effectiveness and impacts on youth is needed.
What is electronic monitoring?
Electronic monitoring is home supervision in which youth are required to wear an electronic device equipped with GPS. The program confines youth to their homes, subjects youth and their families to warrantless searches and allows probation officers to monitor and verify the youth’s movements and whether they are complying with probation terms, such as attending school and court-imposed curfews. Youth can be mandated to EM for several weeks or several months as an alternative to or an extension of incarceration.
In addition to probation terms, young people on EM must comply with detailed rules governing the EM program. For instance, in Contra Costa County, California, youth and their parents/guardian sign a contract packed with 33 rules. Rules include: search and seizures that can occur at any time, and in any place including home, school or work; not leaving the inside of their house for any reason, except for attending school; and very particular charging requirements for the monitoring equipment, which if not done properly, could lead to a violation. These contracts paint multiple paths toward a violation for our young people.
EM is trending
The popularity of EM is growing. Juvenile court judges across the country are mandating youth to EM in lieu of incarceration. Excluding New Hampshire, every state utilizes some form of EM. In places like Los Angeles County, California, the Board of State and Community Corrections reports that about 450 youth are on monitors on any given day. While EM seems to be the “go to” backed by statutory and case law authority, there is very little data on the impact and effectiveness of this practice, and advocates are raising questions.
In the recent report, “Electronic Monitoring of Youth in the California Justice System,” some light is shed on this alternative to incarceration. Researchers and advocates from The Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law and East Bay Community Law Center collected and analyzed rules for juvenile electronic monitoring programs in all 58 California counties; only 51 use EM for youth.
Key highlights in the report include: how rules vary widely in severity and scope among the counties, how fees hurt low-income families (however, states like California have enacted legislation to stop the collection of fees), how programs lack privacy protections, how the program has the potential to set youth up for failure and how the practice is disproportionately used for youth of color.
Taking a pause
George Bernard Shaw said, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” In 2018, we are still dealing with the visceral effects of young people being labeled as the “superpredator”: spawning harsh punishments for youth and implicit and explicit thoughts that youth of color were inherently culpable. Let’s ensure we are not further setting our youth and ourselves up for unintended, and damaging, consequences.
With consensus growing around the harmful effects of incarcerating youth, it is critical that we learn from our past mistakes to create a better, more informed future for our young people. Any practice that potentially aids the cycle of incarceration will profoundly subvert a young person’s healthy mental and emotional development at a critical time in their lives.
It is our responsibility, as justice stakeholders, to take a deep look at the effectiveness of all programs that are alternatives to incarceration so young people can see supportive, rehabilitative options that honors their adolescence and empowers them to successfully navigate their pathway to adulthood.
Stephanie Medley is the education and justice director at RYSE Center, where she leads program development, advocacy and cultivates cross-sector collaborations to address the needs of youth and young adults impacted by the education, economic and criminal legal systems.