Pretrial Electronic Monitoring of Accused People Harms Families and Communities

Electronic monitoring should be eliminated as a policy tool in pretrial settings.

Across the United States each year, hundreds of thousands of people accused but not yet convicted of crimes are required by the courts to participate in electronic monitoring (EM) programs. These people are fitted with a locked, tightened ankle shackle, which often tracks every move they make. Usually, they are then confined to their homes unless they have specific permission to leave. If they remove the band, or break the program rules, they risk being taken to jail. All of this happens before they have been convicted of the crime of which they were accused.

Pretrial EM programs represent a fast-growing type of incarceration that imposes significant harm and burdens on people who are subject to it. In 2018, Michele Alexander called electronic monitoring “the newest Jim Crow.” But, despite some media attention, pretrial electronic monitoring programs have exploded in size, largely without examination by academic and policy researchers or by the system actors who use this technology.

A new report from the Shriver Center, the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, and MediaJustice, Cages Without Bars: Pretrial Electronic Monitoring Across the United States, responds to the gap in critical research on pretrial EM. Based on interviews with program administrators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and people who have been subject to pretrial EM, the report analyzes key features of various EM programs. While EM programs operate quite differently in different jurisdictions, all have one thing in common—they are underpinned by a punitive ideology. In practice, electronic monitoring acts as another form of incarceration.

People on EM monitors provided gut-wrenching accounts of the ways their health, employment, and families were hurt by electronic monitoring. For example, one individual on EM said she was denied permission to go to a local pharmacy to have her prescription filled. “I have seizures and I need my medicine. They told me to call 911 if I have a medical issue. I don’t need 911, I need to go to Walgreens to get my medicine.” Another accused person on EM said, “I had the birth of a child and literally wasn’t allowed to be there because I didn’t have prior authorization to go.”

The impact of EM can extend beyond the monitored individual and affect others in the community as well. Basic tasks such as grocery shopping, going to the laundromat, or even taking children to school become impossible. In Chicago, one individual on EM told us, “I had to pay someone to get toilet tissue for me because I couldn’t leave the house.” Another individual, who was confined to his home on EM while awaiting a retrial, said he was forced to start a GoFundMe account to raise money both for his defense and to meet his basic needs.

Across the jurisdictions surveyed, criteria for admission to EM programs were unclear, and program administration lacked transparency. Little data exist about many aspects of EM programs. This is particularly concerning given that young, Black men may be deemed too “risky” or unable to pay cash bail at a disproportionately higher rate than other accused persons.

Fortunately, in Illinois cash bail was eliminated through passage of the Pretrial Fairness Act. Effective January 2023, the law permits pretrial release of accused people based on flight risk instead of ability to pay. Yet opposing voices continue to work toward keeping Illinois as a place that provides a preference to those with means and penalizes those in poverty. A newly introduced bill, SB 4228, would amend the Pretrial Fairness Act to increase mass incarceration and penalize Black men and their families. It is imperative that we remain vocal about the injustice prevalent in the criminal legal system. We are all harmed by this unjust system. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In addition to significant harms to families and communities, our report found vast inconsistencies in program administration among different cities. Jurisdictions used EM to in a variety of ways, from extremely restrictive home confinement with limited outside “movement” to less restrictive tracking of a person’s movement without restrictions.

Electronic monitoring should be eliminated as a policy tool in pretrial settings. Pretrial electronic monitoring programs lack transparency and accountability, are punitive in nature, and are unsupported by any research establishing a pattern of successful outcomes. Money spent on electronic monitoring could be much more effectively used to support programs that promote healing and access to opportunity, rather than a technology that locks people in their homes.

Where EM program elimination is not possible, pretrial defendants subject to monitoring should be given ample freedom to work, seek medical care, join in family and community activities, and take part in recreation. EM programs should be tested rigorously, used sparingly, and allow accused people to move freely as a default. EM programs should also commit to a robust system of transparent data collection in their operations, with a special focus on the racial impact of electronic monitoring.

Accused people subject to electronic monitoring are suffering. It’s time to reconsider EM as a policy tool and advocate for more effective policies to ensure safety and justice in our communities.

About the Author

LaTanya R. Jackson Wilson
LaTanya R. Jackson Wilson
LaTanya R. Jackson Wilson
Vice President of Advocacy


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