Ankle Monitors Are Listening in on Youth Awaiting Trial

Ecarceration — the use of technology for surveillance, algorithmic risk assessment and other activities that functionally incarcerate people even if they’re technically free in the community — is on the rise, including among youth.

As investigative journalist Kira Lerner just revealed in The Appeal, it’s also getting more intrusive. She found that Cook County was fitting juveniles awaiting trial with ankle monitors that allowed law enforcement to listen in at any time.

Effectively, kids were being turned into mobile surveillance units. In response to criticism, authorities announced that they would disable this “feature” — pending a review.

Michelle Alexander, author of critically-acclaimed criminal injustice text “The New Jim Crow,” calls ecarceration “the newest Jim Crow.” Numerous companies are making big profits off the technology that’s driving this trend — and sadly, sometimes it comes from well-intentioned progressive advocates that don’t consider the implications of their work.

For example, California banned cash bail, which is a huge deal, given the myriad injustices wrapped up in the cash bail system. But then the state implemented algorithmic risk assessment to make decisions about who should be allowed freedom while awaiting trial, and these systems rely on biased technologies.

Ankle monitors are an example of ecarceration that’s been around for a long time; they actually date back to the 1980s, and this technology is used on people awaiting trial as well as people on release. It should be noted that people awaiting trial are legally innocent.

Ankle monitors are equipped with geolocation, and they can alert authorities if someone violates the rules of release. They can also be used to monitor someone’s legal movements. If a release agreement includes a requirement to stay away from former criminal associates and an ankle monitor shows that an individual went to the home of an old partner in crime, that could be used as evidence that they broke the agreement.

Chicago authorities explained that issuing ankle monitors with microphones would allow law enforcement to communicate directly with people — apparently they haven’t heard of phones. And to make that communication two-way, the ankle monitor also needed a microphone. They’re supposed to play a series of tones when the microphone and speaker are active, but Lerner reports that some people said their devices were on and transmitting audio when they didn’t know it.

And youth, along with their families, reported feeling very violated by the microphone and speaker arrangement. Some expressed concerns about privacy and the risk that someone might be recorded while engaging in intimate personal activities, including using the restroom — but privacy concerns around meetings with doctors and lawyers, attending counseling sessions, and more are also worrying.

There’s also a question of whether the monitors are legal at all, since people cannot consent to recording. Furthermore, Illinois has a wiretapping law that requires consent from everyone who is being recorded.

Now that this practice has been exposed, Chicago and other municipalities using this technology are on notice, and they will have to start thinking about whether they really want to keep deploying it. Sometimes negative attention creates a push for positive policy changes, but the solution here isn’t just to turn off the audio transmission and recording capacity of these devices, or to replace them with devices that don’t offer these features.

Electronic monitoring can go wrong, and there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that it is successful at reducing recidivism. When presented with the alternative of living a restricting and surveilled life in the community versus staying in jail or paying bail they can’t afford, this option may look like the best choice to some people — but it’s certainly not very just.

Cities interested in improving outcomes for people of all ages who come into contact with the injustice system need to think about whether ecarceration is really the best, or only, alternative to keeping people physically jailed.

Photo credit: jabejon/Getty Images

28 comments

Richard B
Richard B18 days ago

thanks for posting

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danii p
danii p28 days ago

Thank you

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danii p
danii p28 days ago

Thank you

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danii p
danii p28 days ago

Thank you

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danii p
danii p28 days ago

Thank you

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Dawn C
Dawn C28 days ago

Not surprising.

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Leanne K
Leanne K29 days ago

Wouldnt you be better off getting the backlog of rape kits tested for dna than wasting money on recording ankle monitors if you truly want to get the criminals off the street.

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RK R
RK R29 days ago

The humanity. Wait until the youth violate court orders before GPSing them. Withhold voice monitoring. That is voyeurism.

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Roslyn M
Roslyn McBride29 days ago

This is a violation of human rights.

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Sue H
Sue H29 days ago

Disturbing.

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