Faulty Technology Behind Ankle Monitors

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Electronic GPS monitoring within the criminal justice system isn’t widespread. But it’s become more prevalent in recent years.

In 2005, around 53,000 people were supervised with monitors, according to the PEW Charitable Trusts. By 2015, that number had reached more than 125,000 people. That’s a 136 percent increase in just 10 years.

Some people see the rise in electronic monitors as a positive alternative to mass incarceration because it lets people pay their debt to society while still providing for their families, host Arielle Duhaime-Ross explains.

But as this episode of the Reset podcast uncovers, the technology of ankle monitors doesn’t actually work very well, which means it ends up having hugely negative impacts on the lives of the people it’s meant to be helping.

Sarah Faye Hanna, a 34-year-old mom from Pipe Creek, Texas, wears an ankle monitor as part of her three-year probation sentence. She was convicted of drug possession in 2018.

Hanna says her ankle monitor is about the size of a packet of cigarettes. It lights up green when her location is available and red when it isn’t — which happens more often than she’d like. When the ankle monitor loses its GPS signal; she has to walk around outside until the signal returns. She also has to spend long periods tethered to a wall while the ankle monitor charges, which can make taking care of her newborn tricky. Hanna pays $300 a month to have it.

“I just I hate it. It embarrasses me … I feel like it’s a little bit extreme. They don’t have justification to do this. I’ve gone to court. I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to do. It’s a lot of hassle and it’s super expensive. It’s an invasion of my privacy,” Hanna says.

There are many different reasons why people are ordered to wear ankle monitors. One is probation, as in Hanna’s case. People on parole may also have to wear them, after they have served their sentence. The US federal government uses them to monitor undocumented immigrants, as in the photo above. And people awaiting trial sometimes have to wear them, even though they don’t have a conviction.

Shubha Bala, director of technology at the Center for Court Innovation, describes a 2015 study she conducted with the New York County District Attorney’s office in which young people got the ankle monitors as a possible alternative to spending time in jail at Rikers Island. She observed that the monitors, which connected to the defendants’ phones, are often disruptive. In one instance, a student was kicked out of class because his phone had detected an issue with the monitor and it wouldn’t stop beeping.

“Would I personally feel like electronic monitoring was a good way to continue? I would say no. Some people see electronic monitoring as this magical way of knowing where someone is all the time. And that’s not what it is,” Bala concluded.

Later in the episode, Duhaime-Ross has an in-depth discussion with Robert Gable, the man who —along with his brother — has been credited with conducting the first experiment on electronic monitoring in the 1960s, while the pair was studying at Harvard University.

Gable and his twin brother Ralph set out to see if they could stop young people from committing crimes through a number of interventions, including by monitoring their movements and giving them rewards for good behavior.

Listen to the entire conversation here.

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This story originally appeared on Vox’s website on December 1, 2019. It has been reformatted to fit this website but has been edited for length. All credit goes to the author and original posters of this content.

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