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How electronic monitoring sets people on parole up to fail


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: How electronic monitoring sets people on parole up to fail

  • Florida’s sex offender registry proves inescapable

  • Another North Carolina sheriff restricts cooperation with ICE 

  • He was sent to death row in 2005. Now he is ‘actually innocent.’

  • California prosecutors resist reform despite voters’ desire for it, says editorial board

In the Spotlight

How electronic monitoring sets people on parole up to fail

In her column for the New York Times in November, Michelle Alexander looked at how reform efforts in recent years often offer the “digital prisons” of ankle bracelets and GPS monitoring as an alternative to “brick-and-mortar” jails. Alexander focused on bail reform efforts but spoke more generally about how e-carceration leaves people and entire communities “subject to perpetual criminalization, surveillance, monitoring and control.” [Michelle Alexander / New York Times]

On Feb. 22, the Illinois House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the electronic monitoring of people on mandatory supervised release. About 2,400 people in Illinois wear electronic monitoring devices, after they have been released upon completion of their prison sentences. Witnesses testified about how electronic monitoring, and the restrictions on movement that accompany it, make re-entry more challenging; the enormous power it gives to parole officers; and the high costs to the state, which relies on it despite little definitive evidence that electronic monitoring reduces the recidivism of people on parole. [Lee V. Gaines / NPR Illinois]

Electronic monitoring curtails people’s movement and intrudes in their lives in unjustifiable, even inhumane, ways. Nicole Davis testified about her uncle who was diagnosed with late-stage cancer not long after his release from prison. Because he was under electronic monitoring and often unable to get permission to leave home, he missed doctor’s appointments. He died after he had been home just two months. After he died, his family had to wait for the monitoring device to be removed from his body before he could be cremated. It was two months before it was removed. [Lee V. Gaines / NPR Illinois]

Research published by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2016 showed that more than 125,000 people nationwide were under electronic monitoring in 2015, up from 53,000 in 2005, an increase of nearly 140 percent. The increase was driven by a sharp rise in the use of GPS tracking devices—88,000 in 2015, compared to 2,900 a decade earlier. All 50 states and the District Columbia place people released pretrial, people on probation, and people on parole under electronic monitoring. The brief noted the lack of robust evidence supporting electronic monitoring as a way to reduce recidivism: “Although some research suggests that electronic monitoring can help reduce reoffending rates, the expanded use of these technologies has occurred largely in the absence of data demonstrating their effectiveness for various types of offenders at different stages of the criminal justice process.” [Pew Charitable Trusts]

A recent report by the Center for Media Justice calls for an end to the electronic monitoring of people under parole supervision. “Of all the conditions imposed on individuals on parole,” the authors write, “likely none is more intrusive, punitive and dehumanizing than electronic monitoring.” While their criticisms of electronic monitoring extend beyond the post-release context, “we believe that EM applied to individuals on parole presents some unique features which make this issue warrant immediate attention.” [Center for Media Justice] See also Last week, The Appeal looked at how in Cook County, Illinois, more than 2,700 people are under electronic monitoring pretrial.

The explosion in community corrections in recent decades—the mass supervision that has grown alongside, and feeds, mass incarceration—has seen people under supervision subject to an increasing number of restrictions. Large swathes of completely legal behavior—and in many cases, actions taken in the service of employment, or education, or care for oneself or one’s family—can still serve as the basis for returning someone to prison. Electronic monitoring, and the accompanying home confinement, are exemplars of the problem. [Center for Media Justice]

What is not broadly understand about electronic monitoring is that “virtually all electronic monitoring parole regimes come with a condition of house arrest.” [Center for Media Justice] In Illinois, people convicted of certain designated offenses are automatically placed under electronic monitoring upon release. For everyone else, the Prisoner Review Board makes a determination about whether they should be under electronic monitoring.

In order to leave home outside of the narrow window specified in the terms of electronic monitoring in Illinois, one needs explicit permission. Obtaining this permission, particularly on short notice, is extremely difficult. At last month’s hearing in Illinois, people on parole and employees with programs for the formerly incarcerated described spending hours trying to get through the “call centers” designated for this purpose. One re-entry advocate described working with a client who was taking a test for an alternative school. Because the test was taking longer than expected, he would return home outside the window of time he was allowed to be away. They were unable to get through the call center to get permission for him to return late. He was an hour and a half late and was arrested as a result. The Illinois Department Of Corrections representative said the department did not have information on how many people had been reincarcerated because of EM violations.

The researchers from the Center for Media Justice also contend that electronic monitoring of people on parole does not save state governments money. It only makes parole supervision more expensive, by adding the cost of EM technology and the personnel needed for the practice. In some states, these costs are passed on to people on parole.  [Center for Media Justice]

Illinois has, according to James Kilgore of the Center for Media Justice, spent more than $49 million on the call centers alone since 2010. That is in addition to a $32.5 million contract over the last five years for the electronic monitoring devices. The devices are supplied by BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of the private prison corporation the GEO Group, and the call centers are operated by a subsidiary of BI. [Lee V. Gaines / NPR Illinois]

Monica Cosby, an advocate for formerly incarcerated women, described being under electronic monitoring after her release from prison. She passed up an internship with a law office because she could only leave her home for a few hours a week. She spoke about the vast power EM confers on abusive partners or landlords who can threaten people with being kicked out—and then in violation of their conditions. Electronic monitoring, she said, “makes everywhere you are a satellite of the prison, and it puts everybody in proximity to you kind of in a prison, too.” [Lee V. Gaines / NPR Illinois]

Stories From The Appeal

Florida’s Sex Offender Registry Proves Inescapable. Critics say the state’s policy of keeping non-residents registered bloats the list—and harms public safety. [Steven Yoder]

Stories From Around the Country



Another North Carolina sheriff restricts cooperation with ICE: In 2018, immigrant rights’ activists nationwide leaned into local elections to restrict local cooperation with ICE. That strategy is paying off in North Carolina. The Appeal: Political Report writes that since December, five new sheriffs have ended policies by which their counties assisted the federal agency. Last week, Buncombe (home to Asheville) became the state’s fifth county to stop honoring ICE’s warrantless requests that it detain people in jail beyond their schedule release time. Other sheriffs have broken off more formal partnerships by terminating contracts that Buncombe already didn’t have. [Daniel Nichanian / The Appeal: Political Report]

He was sent to death row in 2005. Now he is ‘actually innocent’: Alfred Dewayne Brown was released in 2015, a decade after being sent to death row for killing a Houston police officer. His release came after previously undisclosed evidence that supported Brown’s alibi was discovered, pointing to serious prosecutorial misconduct. Yet, for purposes of being compensated for the wrongful conviction and his incarceration, Brown was still not considered “actually innocent.” On Friday, a special prosecutor appointed by the Harris County District Attorney to investigate the case issued his report, finding that Brown was in fact innocent. “It is impossible to examine the conviction…without confronting prosecutorial misconduct,” says the report. “ADA Daniel Rizzo…was provided notice of the existence and meaning of exculpatory evidence, failed to produce it to the defense and avoided it during trial. Further investigation of his conduct is warranted.” A previous bar disciplinary complaint against former ADA Rizzo was dismissed two months ago. [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle]

California prosecutors resist reform despite voters’ desire for it, says editorial board: The Los Angeles Times editorial board sharply criticizes the prosecutors challenging a law passed last year that raises the age of criminal responsibility to keep 14- and 15-year-olds out of adult court. It notes that the law, Senate Bill 1391, essentially reversed the legislature’s decision in 1994 to lower the age of criminal responsibility. Despite the growing recognition, most notably in Supreme Court jurisprudence and including among reform-minded prosecutors, that youth are different for purposes of culpability and punishment, several prosecutors are fighting the law. (The editorial links to a letter signed by over a hundred legal experts that defends SB 1391’s constitutionality.) Public safety, the editorial notes, is more than “merely seeking the most punitive possible sentences.” Even while “Californians have clearly expressed their will to return to a more level-headed set of criminal justice policies, it’s interesting to note that their elected prosecutors keep pushing the other way.” [Los Angeles Times Editorial Board]

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