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The Rise of Electronic Monitoring in Criminal Justice

Last week George Zimmerman joined an elite circle that includes Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Martha Stewart, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn-media figures  who owe their freedom to electronic monitoring.  For the rich and famous (as well as those who can raise $200,000 online) electronic monitoring, or more precisely, house arrest with an ankle bracelet means liberation from the vagaries of life with the ordinary folk behind bars. First used in U.S. courts in 1983 electronic monitoring  is currently going viral in the criminal justice system. While in the early days, radio frequency technology dominated, most current systems are GPS-based,  allowing near real time tracking.

Originally what practitioners often call “EM” applied primarily to people guilty of petty crimes or those` with sex offenses.  But today prison overcrowding and state budget crises have made electronic monitoring an alternative of choice.   On a normal day some 200,000 people wake up with a black plastic box strapped to their leg and the number is growing. In the past week alone, San Francisco County announced plans to triple the number of people on EM while legislators in Louisiana, which has the nation’s highest per capita incarceration rate, considered  initiatives to put legions of people onto the streets using the electronic tether.

On one level all this EM is a good thing.  For more than three decades we’ve been locking people up at a furious rate. Our prison and jail population has quintupled since 1980, now standing around 2.3 million. Electronic monitoring does offer opportunities for people other than the rich and famous to avoid being behind bars. Currently, the most common application of electronic monitoring is pre-trial release.  Every day individuals awaiting judgment on relatively minor offenses go about their daily business on an ankle bracelet as a condition of bail. Cook County in Illinois has already run 250,000 people through electronic monitoring regimes, 85% of them pre-trial. This is a step in the right direction-trying to ensure that a minor brush with the law doesn’t cost a person their job, their housing, or access to medical treatment and education.  But at the same time, there are concerns about how the use of this technology will evolve.  It all gets a little more complicated when we move beyond the Zimmermans and other lesser lights awaiting trial.

At the root of the complexity is the reality that electronic monitoring is not only a policy device, but  an industry.  Not surprisingly the biggest force in the world of EM is also one of the giants of the private prisons sector, the GEO Group. This Florida-based firm pulled in earnings of just over $1.6 billion in 2011.  Early last year GEO took over the EM sector’s largest player,  BI Incorporated of Colorado.  BI is both a producer of the devices and a provider of backup services, including direct monitoring of individuals on ankle bracelets through a network of community-based offices.  BI controls some 30% of the U.S. EM market.

GEO’s investment in BI dovetails neatly with the company’s  most rapidly expanding market niche: immigration detention. While private providers only hold 8% of prison beds nationwide, in immigration the figure is 49%.  The advent of harsher immigration laws and the increasing implementation of Secure Communities promises even bigger profits for private sector liberty deprivers. For those captured by the immigration dragnet but not put behind bars, BI has the perfect solution- intensive supervision. In a $372 million contract signed with ICE in 2009, BI agreed to “intensively supervise” 27,000 people awaiting litigation for deportation or political asylum.  For most of these 27,000 that intensive supervision will include a BI ankle bracelet.

The introduction of this technology into the immigration sphere raises questions of who’s next.    If the GEO Group and other major players in the electronic monitoring sector such as Omnilink, iSecure Trac, Secure Alert, and Pro  Tech  are to maintain their bottom lines, they need to expand their revenue either by tethering more ankles,  lobbying  for longer terms for those who are under EM, or increasing service charges.

The obvious first target is growing the use of GPS monitoring as a condition of parole or probation. Currently, there are nearly five million people in the U.S. under some form of post-conviction supervision. Less than 50,000 are on electronic monitoring.  While there is little evidence that EM reduces recidivism, expect the private providers, led by BI, to use an army of lobbyists  to pitch their product with a heavy dose of the gospel of ensuring public safety and the need for tighter restrictions  for those on GPS systems.

A second untapped market niche is school pupils  In Texas a number of high schools with primarily African American and Latino student bodies are placing pupils with records of excessive truancy on ankle bracelets. In Dallas’ Bryan Adams High School, local EM provider iISecureTrac kicked in $26,000 to fund a pilot program.  The principal was a former employee of the Bureau of Prisons.

In terms of service charges, many existing EM programs have already initiated user fees on bracelet wearers of $5 to $15 a day plus startup charges which run as high as $200. Denver even has a website where people can pay their EM user fees online.  Such miniscule tariffs don’t pose a problem for the Martha Stewarts and Paris Hiltons of the EM realm, but for the generally impoverished population that ends up in jail relatively small amounts can break the bank.

So while EM has brought relief to George Zimmerman and other perhaps more deserving folk, the real question is:  where is this technology heading?  Here are two voices that offer some answers.  John Hastings III, President of Secure Alert,  put forward  this summary of his firm’s direction:

“We will continue to focus our energies and efforts in delivering profitable revenue growth, while supporting customer-specific public safety initiatives through the innovation and deployment of our best-in-class, intervention and real-time monitoring technologies and services.”

Slate reporter William Saletan offered a slightly different take:

“As GPS gets cheaper, politicians will be tempted to order it not just for people who would otherwise be jailed, but for those who wouldn’t.”

No matter which of these voices you’re listening to, if your history includes mental health problems, receiving state assistance, seriously overdue student loan repayments or getting  caught smoking in the high school bathroom-watch your ankle.

James Kilgore is a Research Scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author of three novels, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, Freedom Never Rests and Prudence Couldn’t Swim, all written during his six and a half years of incarceration. He also spent a year on an electronic monitor. He can be reached at waazn1@gmail.com

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James Kilgore is a writer and activist based in Urbana, Illinois. He spent six and a half years in prison. During those years, he drafted three novels which have been published since his release in 2009. His latest book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Era will be published by The New Press in September. He can be contacted at waazn1@gmail.com

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