by Kevin Bliss
America’s troubled bail systems that discriminate against the poor and are proven to be a costly and ineffective means of managing pretrial detainees are being replaced with one just as prejudicial but more burdensome. Cities and counties are now utilizing electronic monitoring to keep track of those released on reduced bonds or their own recognizance. The monitoring is generally handled by private enterprises, but the costs are passed on to the individual being monitored. Additionally, those fitted with the GPS tracking devices find gaining or keeping employment more difficult.
Electronic monitoring began in the 1960s. Harvard psychology students Ralph and Robert Gable used positive reinforcement and surplus missile tracking equipment in an experiment with a group of volunteer teens on probation. By the end of the experiment, all but two volunteers dropped out, finding the devices oppressive.
Today, it is a fast growing revenue source for private community corrections’ giants such as The GEO Group and CoreCivic. The total number of people nationwide under electronic supervision grew from 53,000 in 2005 to 125,000 in 2015.
Companies can set their own rates with the threat of high interest or even bond revocation for those who fall behind. Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services (“EMASS”) charges $300 up front for installation and 25 days service, plus $10 per day thereafter. A contract is signed that states the balance will be paid before removal of the device. The fees can easily add up to more than what bond may have been.
Cash-strapped counties and municipalities find it more profitable to release people on electronic monitoring rather than keep them in jail. Not only do they avoid housing costs, but some sheriffs and probation offices manage their own monitoring services and collect fees from the person placed on the device. The same equipment EMASS charges $10 per day costs some counties as little as $2 or $3 per day, allowing communities to look to police departments and courts for revenue shortfalls.
Monitored individuals also must check in regularly, often at hours that interfere with their jobs.
Monitors may even have geographic restrictions, effectively keeping people from certain neighborhoods. Passing through the wrong neighborhood just to get to work might trigger an alarm. A National Institute of Justice study found that 22 percent of the people on electronic monitoring were fired or asked to leave their jobs because of the monitoring.
Critics contend that the “offender funded” program is nothing more than an extension of governmental surveillance techniques that have historically affected blacks. Sociologist Simone Browne says in her book, Dark Matters (2015), that digital shackling is just another form of the Jim Crow laws that have controlled where black people live, move, and work.
New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow (2010) that mass incarceration is a “system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls–walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship.”
With technology such as smart phone applications and facial recognition, and the 4.5 million Americans currently on probation or parole, electronic monitoring can have a major effect on that mass incarceration.
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