Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt

  • A presiding judge of the court who also oversees the court’s contract with EMASS stated that he was concerned that EMASS would stop providing ankle monitoring services in St. Louis if he waived fees for people based on income. 
  • There is scarce evidence showing that people tracked by electronic monitoring are more likely to appear in court. 
  • Even after a public defender successfully argued for the removal of a person’s ankle monitor, EMASS refused to remove the device because of his $700 debt owed to the company. 

This article describes the fundamental issues with electronic monitoring by private companies through the personal experience of a St. Louis, Missouri resident. The author details how a teenager, who was stopped for driving a stolen car, was charged hundreds of dollars pretrial for GPS monitoring, which he could not afford to pay. EMASS, the electronic monitoring company profiled in the article, and other companies that provide similar services, can charge late fees for missed payments and use the court’s authority to compel payment by initiating criminal proceedings. This publication also provides background information on the increasing popularity of electronic monitoring and the new form the practice could evolve into in the future. 

You can read the full text of the article here

Key findings

  • In 2015, more than 125,000 people were under supervision compared to just 53,000 people in 2005. 
  • A 2014 study shows that every state except Hawaii charges people for at least part of the costs associated with GPS monitoring. 
  • As cash bail continues to be challenged by advocates and reformers, justice actors have started to rely on GPS monitoring as a substitute for pretrial detainment. After a 2018 ruling forced courts to release more people without bail, the number of people released on electronic monitoring tripled in San Francisco. 
  • Falling three weeks behind on electronic monitoring fees can lead to incarceration for a pretrial defendant in Greenville, South Carolina. 
  • Many local judges do not conduct ability to pay hearings, making people vulnerable to the private supervision companies that set their own rates and charge interest for nonpayment. 
  • Clients of EMASS, a private supervision company, told the author that they took second jobs and removed their children from daycare to have money to pay the supervision fees. Some people pled guilty, claiming probation would be cheaper than paying for a monitor. 
  • A survey of 5,000 people on electronic monitoring in 2011 found that 22 percent  stated they were fired or asked to leave their job because of their ankle monitor. 
  • EMASS gets authority from the court to compel payment because they can initiate court proceedings when someone fails to pay.
Ava Kofman, ProPublica