The plague of mass incarceration in the United States has captured national attention, with substantial bipartisan support to resolve this crisis. Even as we recognize the problem, however, it is important to think critically about proposed alternatives. There is a growing consensus among developmental researchers and juvenile justice decision-makers that incarceration is particularly damaging to youth.
Thankfully many jurisdictions are moving away from their historic reliance on secure, institutional placements. As part of these decarceration efforts, some jurisdictions are increasing their use of electronic monitoring, or EM, which uses GPS ankle monitors to track a person’s movements and enforce conditions of release. But, without proper safeguards, EM can have unintended consequences and pose its own dangers to youth, families, and communities. Advocates and stakeholders should thoughtfully consider the actual effects of EM before turning to it as a tool for decarceration.
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Electronic monitoring disproportionately affects communities of color. The majority of children placed on electronic monitors are children of color and children from low-income families. According to legal scholar and juvenile defender Kate Weisburd, for these young people, “electronic monitoring represents another way that every aspect of their daily lives is subject to surveillance and control.”
When youth are placed on GPS ankle monitors, their homes, neighborhoods and schools are also under surveillance, reminding some advocates of state surveillance that has historically targeted communities of color. Purposefully designed to enable probation officers to easily identify and report violations, EM also exacerbates the racially discriminatory effects of probation enforcement.
As Weisburd explains, “African-American youth and youth from poorer neighborhoods are most likely to have a probation officer document noncompliance and are more likely to receive more severe consequences.” With EM, youth are subject to even more conditions and face a higher risk of a documented violation, compounding these disparities.
Financial, mental health costs
The stigmatizing and marginalizing effects of EM can undermine the goals of decarceration. Advocates and policy experts have described electronic monitoring as “a modern day scarlet letter” and an electronic “shackle,” a term notably used by Topeka K. Sam, the founder and executive director of Ladies of Hope Ministries. Youth placed on EM recall feeling dehumanized and like they were being kept on a leash.
EM substantially constrains youth mobility — often limiting them to home and school — which can prevent them from playing sports and participating in after-school programs that are critical for healthy adolescent development. Requiring youth to spend large amounts of time at home can also exacerbate family tension, trap youth in an unsafe or abusive environment or mimic the effects of solitary confinement on days when there is no school and caregivers work all day.
These experiences may worsen conditions like depression or PTSD, harming the child’s mental health. As described by Emmett Sanders as a part of the #NoDigitalPrisons campaign, “When the home becomes a place of incarceration for a child, they are being told that there is no hope, no place where they are safe. No place where they will be a child instead of a criminal.”
Electronic monitoring can damage families and drive them deeper into poverty. Families often have to foot the bill for EM, and the costs can add up. Depending on the jurisdiction, the monitor alone can cost around $15 per day or more, and the family faces additional fees if the monitor is damaged. These fees are often paid to for-profit companies that produce the devices, raising concerns about conflicts of interest and even extortion.
People on EM are usually required to call the probation officer and EM company 48 hours before going to a location other than their home or school. Families may have to buy cellphones so youth can make these frequent calls, or wireless networks for devices that require Wi-Fi access. Strict curfews, keeping the device charged and advance notice requirements may force parents to miss work or rearrange schedules, which is especially stressful for single working parents.
Beyond these financial strains, when children are imprisoned at home, their families also face surveillance and control. EM provisions generally regulate who can enter the home without permission and often only allow parents and siblings, but many families are more extensive. Housing authority regulations may not allow EM on the premise, preventing the young person from visiting relatives who live in public housing.
Not enough data on benefits
Without appropriate safeguards, electronic monitoring risks extending the juvenile justice system’s reach, rather than diverting youth from institutions. One of the main critiques of EM is that instead of serving as an alternative to incarceration, in practice it subjects more youth to more intensive court control for longer periods of time.
When youth have an ankle monitor tracking their every move, the chance of a violation is high — even for something as small as not charging the device or as subjective as disobeying their parents. Violations can mean new penalties, including extended sentences, new charges and even detention, which EM is intended to prevent in the first place. Furthermore, EM is often used on youth who would never have been incarcerated pretrial or post-adjudication to begin with, rather than as a strict alternative to incarceration. This net-widening effect means that EM is not always as cost effective for state systems as some figures suggest.
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There is little data on the effectiveness of EM. Although jurisdictions are turning to electronic monitoring on the theory that it is a cost-effective tool for decarceration and rehabilitation, there is no empirical evidence to support these results. In fact, evidence points to a likely increase in recidivism rates for youth on EM, and our understanding of adolescent development suggests EM is likely to penalize typical adolescent behavior. Jurisdictions should demand data on EM’s effectiveness for individual youth and their communities before investing in it as a tool for decarceration.
For the above reasons, advocates and policymakers should tread carefully when considering turning to EM as an alternative to incarceration. Despite the intuitive appeal to using a relatively low-cost technology to monitor youth rather than locking them up, the limited research on EM suggests that, in many cases, this may be a false promise. In practice, EM often simply widens the net of the juvenile justice system and transfers the harms of incarceration to homes, families and communities.
Before adopting, expanding or advocating for an EM program, stakeholders should:
- Review the “Guidelines for Respecting the Rights of Individuals on Electronic Monitors” put forth by the Challenging E-Carceration campaign.
- Consider the experiences of people personally impacted by EM. Listen to the Rustbelt Abolition Radio episode, “Abolishing Electronic Incarceration” featuring Myaisha Hayes and James Kilgore as they discuss the launch of the #ChallengeEcarceration campaign with the Center for Media Justice. For panel discussions and personal stories, listen to the webinar co-hosted by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Juvenile Justice Network, “Electronic Monitoring for Youth in Trouble with the Law,” and the panel discussion “Digital Prisons,” moderated by The Center for Media Justice.
- Review existing research on EM. For an in-depth academic review of the use of EM, check out Kate Weisburd’s 2015 paper published in the Iowa Law Review, “Monitoring Youth: The Collision of Rights and Rehabilitation.”