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Pushed to Curb Use of Cash Bail By January, Indiana Relies On ‘Knee-Jerk’ Alternative

Advocates warn that overuse of ankle monitors and other forms of electronic monitoring produce consequences of their own.

Photo of woman at window.
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

When April Mahon was ordered to spend 30 days wearing an ankle monitor for a 2009 disorderly conduct conviction, she said the experience was especially hard on her children. Because she was a single mother and her teenage daughters were able to drive, they had to do chores like grocery shopping and mowing the lawn because she was denied permission to do them herself. 

Mahon, who lives in Bluffton, Indiana, said she was embarrassed to go to work with a visible device on her leg. It also took a toll on her income as a carhop at a drive-in restaurant, she said, because she wasn’t permitted to work outside where tips were higher. Mahon said her two daughters have both spent time on electronic monitoring as well.

When you actually get into it, it’s just prison inside your own home.

April Mahon Indiana resident

Like many people, Mahon, now 46, thought an ankle monitor would be better than the alternative. “You get in your head that you’re home versus being in jail, so it sounds great,” she said. “But then when you actually get into it, it’s just prison inside your own home. And the cost is just incredible. And the risk. Most people that are placed on electronic monitoring that I know personally end up back in jail anyways for violations.”

Still, the state has invested heavily in the technology as a way to reduce overcrowding. A 2018 report from the Vera Institute of Justice found that nearly all of Indiana’s jails were at capacity or overcrowded. And advocates fear electronic monitoring could become even more popular as the state implements new bail reforms in the months ahead.

“Any time people start talking about reducing jail populations, they start talking about putting people on monitors,” said James Kilgore, an expert on electronic monitoring who leads the Center for Media Justice’s Challenging E-carceration project. “It becomes a default, and it happens unless there’s activism to push back. It’s just a knee-jerk policy response.” 

Though there’s little reliable data on electronic monitoring, a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 125,000 people were supervised with monitors nationwide in 2015, more than triple the number in 2005. According to Kilgore, Indianapolis has one of the highest rates of ankle monitor use among major U.S. cities. Marion County, home to Indianapolis, put roughly 5,000 people on ankle monitors last year, according to a report from ProPublica. 

That concerns Mahon, who recently shared her experiences at an event organized by a new coalition, Indiana Against E-Carceration. The group is working to educate the public and state lawmakers about the harms of electronic monitoring at a time when they say courts will be tempted to increase the use of ankle monitors even more. 

We already have a huge issue with EM in Indianapolis.

April Angermeier The Bail Project

Under a rule enacted by Indiana’s Supreme Court in 2016, counties have to reduce their use of cash bail by January 2020. Although it won’t mean the complete end of cash bail in the state, judges will have to consider alternatives to requiring low-level offenders to post a bond until they come back to court. 

“If you no longer have bail as a way to tie people to what you see as the necessity of forcing them to reappear, then judges are going to be very tempted to put people on electronic monitors,” Micol Seigel, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington and an activist in the coalition, told The Appeal. 

For activists who have been fighting Indiana’s use of cash bail, that’s a future they would like to avoid. “We already have a huge issue with EM in Indianapolis,” said April Angermeier, an advocate with The Bail Project in Indiana. “When we talk to community corrections, they seem to be bragging about the fact that the use of EM is about to increase.”

Marion County has contracted for more than 10 years with Track Group, which provides and manages monitoring devices. The company provides the county with thousands of the same devices that until this year could listen to and record children in Chicago without their consent. 

Advocates say the state’s overcrowded jails stem partly from a 2015 bill signed by then Governor Mike Pence. The law, which he painted as a criminal justice reform effort, created new classes of felonies and harsher penalties for serious offenses. The state also reclassified the lowest-level felony sentences so that people could serve their time (maximum of two and a half years) in county jails instead of state prisons. “No other state has added so many to its jail population so rapidly since Nevada in 2003,” the Vera Institute of Justice wrote in last year’s report. 

But emptying the jails could spell disaster as well, advocates said, if people are then equipped with ankle monitors. 

Though proponents say electronic monitoring is a cost-effective way to release people from prison or jail, research shows that the vast majority of people awaiting trial will show up to court with just a reminder text or call instead. 

The cost of electronic monitoring often accrues, at least in part, to the defendants themselves and can prevent them from accepting a monitor or drive them into debt. In Marion County, people are asked to pay a $50 setup fee and $14 a day. 

Aside from monetary concerns, advocates say, electronic monitoring raises privacy issues, subjects people to social stigmas, and may encourage them to take unfavorable deals in court. A Chicago woman who spent time wearing an ankle monitor told The Appeal she felt pressured into accepting a plea bargain because she was unable to watch her children or seek medical attention while confined by the device. 

Activists like Seigel said they want more people in Indiana to hear these stories and think critically about electronic monitoring. 

“Our sense is that people haven’t given this a whole lot of thought,” Seigel said. “They say, ‘Oh, electronic monitoring. Well, sounds easy. I have a Fitbit, I don’t care. I have a telephone in my pocket, it won’t be harder than that.’ And they don’t actually understand how enormously destructive these things are on the fabric of people’s lives.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove the charges against Mahon’s daughters, which could not be fully verified.