Decades later, electronic monitoring of offenders is still prone to failure

Wi-Fi networks occasionally go down, and video calls can freeze mid-meeting, but when tech glitches happen in the criminal justice system, public safety and the lives of those incarcerated hang in the balance. Electronic monitoring devices to track those on probation or parole have been around since the 1980s, but the devices remain highly flawed. False positive alerts overwhelm corrections officials, ‘tamper-proof’ devices can be circumvented, and technical glitches interfere with users’ ability to hold down a job. Despite their defects, electronic monitoring devices are on the rise, often as a solution to overcrowded prisons. According to a Pew study, the number of active, offender monitoring devices increased 140 percent from 2005 to 2015. Electronic monitoring has the potential to keep offenders out of prison safely, but it is important to understand why the devices don’t work well and how we can make them better.

Electronic monitoring is most often a condition of probation, which occurs before or in lieu of jail or prison time, or parole, which occurs after release from prison. Some monitoring devices operate via radio signals sent between a device strapped to the ankle, and a base unit. When the ankle device is far enough away from the base unit, it sends an alert to the authorities. Increasingly, electronic monitoring devices rely on GPS technology to constantly track the device wearer’s location. Some also have breathalyzer accessories so that officers can keep tabs on the wearer’s alcohol consumption.

Unfortunately, with the proliferation of electronic devices comes increased reports of their failing. In 2011, California officials conducted tests on the monitoring devices worn by 4,000 high-risk sex offenders and gang members, and according to the LA Times, found that “batteries died early, cases, cracked, tampering alerts failed, and reported locations were off by as much as three miles”. Parolees were able to thwart the devices by covering them in tinfoil or going indoors. Parole officers were inundated with as many as a thousand alerts per day, and meaningless alerts led officers to worry that they were missing actual instances of fleeing parolees.

Trouble with monitoring devices is not limited to California. An audit in Tennessee found that 80 percent of alerts from offender monitoring devices were not checked by officers. Similar issues came to light in Colorado and New York when officers missed or ignored repeated alerts of device failure and then several parolees committed violent crimes. Officers in Florida were so overwhelmed with alerts that they stopped all real-time notifications, save those relating to device removal, and as a result, did not notice when one parolee broke his curfew 53 times in one month before killing three people.

Electronic monitoring causes problems for the wearers of the devices as well. If a technical glitch causes a false positive alert, parolees and those on probation can be put back in jail for violating the terms of their release. Technical glitches can also hurt wearers’ chances of holding down a job. In 2011, the National Institute of Justice conducted a study of 5,000 offenders under electronic monitoring, and found that many participants had to take breaks from work to walk around outside and reconnect lost signals. 22 percent reported that they were fired or asked to leave a job because of the ankle monitors.

The costs of electronic monitoring pose a financial hurdle for those monitored as well. According to NPR, 49 states either allow or require the cost of monitoring to be passed along to the wearers. Fees range, but typically wearers are charged $10 to $15 per day to be monitored. Some courts have a sliding scale based on the user’s ability to pay, but in other jurisdictions, those who aren’t able to pay the fees are sent to jail. Such was the case for one man who spent 12 months in jail for stealing a beer from a convenience store because he couldn’t pay for his court-ordered monitoring device.

Despite the high stakes and widespread technical failings of electronic monitoring, there are no compulsory national standards for monitoring systems. In July of 2016, the National Institutes of Justice released an extensive report on the “minimum requirements” for monitoring devices, including protocols for their testing, but all standards remain voluntary.

Mandating standards and testing protocols prior to the roll out of new monitoring devices could forestall problems with the current system. California is an apt case study. A state-wide monitoring program launched in 2008, using devices from 3M and Satellite Tracking of People. However, it wasn’t until 2011 that officials tested the devices rigorously, and found that 3M’s devices failed 46 of their 102 tests. California quickly removed thousands of the devices and replaced them with models from another manufacturer’s model. Had rigorous tests been a pre-condition to starting an electronic monitoring program, California might have averted the crisis.

Rigorous testing and standards will be all the more important as corrections agencies consider the next generation of electronic monitoring – smartphone applications. Some apps pair with ankle or wrist strap, while others use voice and facial recognition technology to ensure that an individual is still with their phone. Since apps have a more flexible user interface than an ankle device alone, they can provide new ways for probation and parole officers to check in with users, connect them to resources, and offer positive reinforcement for making court dates and other terms of release. But these apps are not immune from the connectivity issues and false alarms that plague ankle-monitoring devices. Similarly, they must anticipate users who attempt to circumvent or break the technology.

The stakes for electronic monitoring are too high for devices to work inconsistently. With use of ankle monitoring devices on the rise, and monitoring apps on the horizon, it is all the more important that technologists and policy experts work together to ensure that all devices meet the same high standards.

Grace Gedye contributed to this post.