Across California, young people in the juvenile justice system are routinely tracked 24/7 with GPS ankle monitors that are often touted as “better than jail.” That’s too low a standard for a technology used on children.
A new report issued by UC Berkeley School of Law and the East Bay Community Law Center, which we helped draft, suggests that electronic monitoring may worsen the very problems that juvenile courts try to remedy. Rather than further rehabilitation, it often leads to jail for technical rule violations and traps young people in the system longer.
Electronic monitoring is harsh and a poor fit for youths, is disproportionately used for youths of color and should be reserved only for certain serious cases.
We wrote this report because we regularly saw clients sent back to jail for violating inflexible monitoring rules. One client, a 13 year-old boy, was arrested for stealing a backpack, his first offense, and was put on an electronic monitor for three months. This meant staying inside his house except when going to school. He wound up going to jail for violating monitoring rules seven times during the roughly two years on probation. Every time he went to jail, he fell behind in school, missed counseling appointments, and lost job and mentoring opportunities.
Most other California counties have similarly stringent rules. Not surprisingly, rule violations are frequent, and young people cycle in and out of jail for technical violations.
Their families also struggle to pay daily monitoring fees of $3.50 to $30 per day. Some counties charge additional fees for applying to the program or moving, on top of fees for probation, juvenile hall and drug testing. The costs add up and are often impossible to pay. An important bill before the Legislature, Senate Bill 190, would eliminate these costs.
Our report, which analyzes the 51 counties that use electronic monitoring in juvenile court, shows troubling trends. Some rules undermine rehabilitation by preventing social activities that help kids thrive. In some counties, monitored youths cannot work, play sports, participate in after-school activities, or have any visitors except immediate family.
Some counties have only eight or 10 rules, while others have more than 50. One counties instruct youths that they cannot alter their appearance “including but not limited to a haircut, shave, tattoo, or piercing without court approval.” Some require a high school or even college reading level to understand.
Our report also highlights how little is known about the effectiveness of GPS monitoring. While there is growing consensus that incarcerating young people is harmful, electronic monitoring is no panacea. Cycling in and out of juvenile hall for monitoring violations undermines stability when it is needed most, disrupting school, family, jobs and other rehabilitative activities.
Alternatives to incarceration are badly needed. But we owe it to young people and their families to make sure they are utilized fairly and responsibly.
Catherine Crump is an assistant clinical professor at UC Berkeley Law School and director of the Samuelson Clinic for Law, Technology & Public Policy and can be contacted at email@example.com. Kate Weisburd is a clinical instructor and director of the Youth Defender Clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christina Koningisor is the privacy law fellow with the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology and can be contacted at email@example.com.