Wearing an Electronic Monitoring Device Might Be Worse Than Jail Time

Beyond the cyclical criminalization that the device provokes, its rules and circumstances clash with the infrastructure of the teenage mind.
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(Photo: niXerKG/Flickr)

(Photo: niXerKG/Flickr)

There are between 450 and 500 youths living with electronic monitoring devices strapped to their ankles in Los Angeles County.

That statistic comes from a new study written by University of California–Berkeley professor Kate Weisburd for the Iowa Law Review.

It's widely believed that electronic monitoring is a cheaper and more viable alternative to incarceration. Although the program has decreased the number of detained youth, the number of minors confined to in-home detention has only grown. In fact, youth who would otherwise not be sent to a detention center are subjected to electronic monitoring.

"Expecting the experience-based ability to resist impulses to be fully formed prior to age 18 or 19 would seem on present evidence to be wishful thinking."

These youth adhere to simple yet extreme rules: They're required to call their probation officers three times a day, and if they want to go anywhere besides school, they need to put in a formal request to their probation office 48 hours in advance. Those are challenging rules for kids to follow, especially ones with serious familial responsibilities.

Take Kathy, one of Weisburd's clients and sources for her study. Kathy struggled balancing school and taking care of her ailing grandmother. Charged with a low-level drug possession, Kathy was then placed on probation. But after missing school, and thus violating her probation, Kathy was court-ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device. While Kathy regularly called her probation officer, she failed to obtain permission to go to a prenatal appointment and bring her grandmother to the doctor. Both instances were deemed violations, and Kathy was forced to spend five days in juvenile hall; afterwards, she was placed back on the electronic monitor.

Kathy's situation is not unique. In fact, according to a survey Weisburd conducted, 50 percent of youth tethered to the device have violated program rules. Moreover, if the device is removed, youth can be charged with a felony, thus turning a single offense into an endless cycle of incarceration and electronic monitoring.

Beyond the cyclical criminalization that the device provokes, its rules and circumstances clash with the infrastructure of the teenage mind. "Expecting the experience-based ability to resist impulses ... to be fully formed prior to age 18 or 19 would seem on present evidence to be wishful thinking," says Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring.

Aside from innate teenage spontaneity, in Alameda County, where Weisburd conducted a vast portion of her research, a young person would need a high school reading level to understand the conditions of the electronic monitoring contract. That's a very particularly challenging endeavor for juvenile offenders—Weisburd estimates 36 percent of them have learning disabilities.

These devices are also a significant financial burden. In Alameda County, families are billed $15 a day for their child's electronic monitor, and its not uncommon for youth to spend months wearing one. Removing the device can cost a family hundreds of dollars.

So what's the solution? Weisburd recommends community-based programming. "In Oakland there were Evening Reporting Centers at local non-profits," she says, "the youth were kept busy, off the streets, got good programming, and there was no need at all for electronic monitoring."

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Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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