Defendants Driven into Debt by Fees for Ankle Monitors from Private Companies

07.23.19

An ankle monitor. Photograph by Zora J Murff for The New York Times.

The growing use of ankle bracelets and other electronic monitoring devices for pretrial defendants is profiting private companies and raising troubling questions about discrimination on the basis of race and poverty, according to a new report from the New York Times.

On any given day in America, half a million people who have not been convicted of a crime are jailed because they cannot afford to pay bail. Bail reform has been taking hold across the country, leading to the growing use of ankle monitors for pretrial defendants. “You would be hard-pressed to find bail-reform legislation in any state that does not include the possibility of electronic monitoring,” Robin Steinberg, the chief executive of the Bail Project, told the Times.

More than 125,000 people were supervised with electronic monitors in 2015, compared with just 53,000 people in 2005, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, and that number is likely growing steadily.

States and cities are increasingly requiring people to pay for electronic monitoring themselves. A 2014 study by NPR and the Brennan Center found that, with the exception of Hawaii, every state required people to pay at least part of the costs associated with GPS monitoring. Many jurisdictions outsource electronic monitoring programs to private companies, for whom “community corrections” services are among the fastest-growing revenue sectors of their industry.

The Times found that ankle monitors often put poor people in special jeopardy.

Across the country, defendants who have not been convicted of a crime are put on “offender funded” payment plans for monitors that sometimes cost more than their bail. And unlike bail, they don’t get the payment back, even if they’re found innocent. Although a federal survey shows that nearly 40 percent of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to cover an emergency, companies and courts routinely threaten to lock up defendants if they fall behind on payment.

Reporters learned that many local judges do not conduct hearings on whether a defendant can afford to pay for monitoring before making it a condition of their release, leaving defendants at the mercy of private companies that set their own rates and charge interest when a person can’t pay fees that often amount to hundreds of dollars. If defendants don’t pay, private companies can initiate criminal-court proceedings, threatening defendants with going back to jail.

While cities often pay private contractors $2 to $3 a day for monitoring equipment and services, the Times reports that companies like Emass, a private monitoring company in the St. Louis area, charge defendants as much as $10 a day. Emass clients told the Times they had to find second jobs, take their children out of day care and cut into their disability checks in order to pay the monitoring fees, and others quickly pleaded guilty because being on probation costs less than an ankle monitor.

Ankle bracelets are not only expensive, but the fist-sized units and weekly check-ins with the monitoring company make it difficult to find and keep a job. In 2011, the National Institute of Justice surveyed 5,000 people on electronic monitors and found that 22 percent said they had been fired or asked to leave a job because of the device.

The Times reports that, while national statistics on the racial breakdown of Americans wearing ankle monitors are not available, “all indications suggest that mass supervision, like mass incarceration, disproportionately affects black people.” In Cook County, Illinois, for example, black people comprise 24 percent of the population, and make up 67 percent of the people wearing monitors.

Monitoring devices, some of which are equipped with two-way microphones, give law enforcement unprecedented access to the private lives of the people wearing them, and of their families and friends. In some cities, police have concentrated surveillance tools, including GPS location data from monitors, in neighborhoods of color. A CityLab investigation found that Baltimore police were more likely to deploy the Stingray — a controversial and secretive cellphone tracking technology — where African Americans lived.

Claims that monitors increase public safety by preventing defendants from committing an offense or leaving town are unsupported, the Times found. Studies showing that GPS monitors increase court appearance rates are scarce, and research about monitoring as a deterrent is inconclusive.

GPS monitoring companies have started to offer smartphone applications that verify someone’s location through voice and face recognition as a cheaper and more convenient alternative to the bulky ankle bracelet. By making surveillance cheaper, easier, and less visible, these applications could increase the reach of criminal justice supervision. “For the nearly 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole,” the Times concludes, “it is not difficult to imagine a virtual prison system as ubiquitous — and invasive — as Instagram or Facebook.”