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Use of Electronic Monitoring Skyrockets

by Christopher Zoukis

A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released on September 7, 2016, revealed that the number of accused and convicted offenders required to wear some kind of electronic monitoring device has increased nearly 140 percent in the last decade.

Electronic monitoring devices generally consist of GPS and radio-frequency (RF) units. GPS systems are used to track an individual’s location in real time, while RF devices typically monitor an individual’s presence in a specified location.

According to the study, the number of electronic devices being used to monitor pre-trial and post-trial offenders rose from approximately 53,000 in 2005 to more than 125,000 in 2015. The growth during that decade-long period appears to be driven almost entirely by the increase in the use of GPS tracking devices – which are used to monitor parolees, probationers, sex offenders and immigrants facing deportation proceedings.

It is unclear what this significant increase in the monitoring of pre- and post-trial individuals portends for the criminal justice system.

“Although some research suggests that electronic monitoring can help reduce reoffending rates, the expanded use of these technologies has occurred largely in the absence of data demonstrating their effectiveness for various types of offenders, at different stages of the criminal justice process,” the Pew Charitable Trusts stated.

Privacy advocates have expressed concern over the increased use of electronic monitoring devices.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a leading advocate of electronic privacy, notes on its website that “All too often, new police surveillance tools are initially applied only to the ‘worst of the worst’ and then slowly – but surely – expanded to include an ever-growing number of less culpable individuals. We’ve seen it with DNA collection. And now we’re starting to see it with GPS tracking.”

Challenges to the constitutionality of electronic monitoring have increased in step with the growing use of the technology. States and federal jurisdictions are divided as to the constitutional permissiveness of electronic supervision, however. The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in Grady v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 1368 (2015) [PLN, June 2015, p.51], but only indicated that the attachment of a GPS tracking unit to a sex offender qualified as a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes. The Court left open the question of when such a search would be reasonable.

In an amicus brief filed in support of a recent challenge to the imposition of lifetime GPS monitoring of a sex offender, the EFF noted, “When law enforcement officials use GPS devices and other emerging location surveillance technologies to systematically track where we are, they also learn an extraordinary amount of highly sensitive information about who we are.”

Regardless of such concerns, it is undisputed that electronic monitoring technologies are relatively new to the criminal justice system and, therefore, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts study, “additional growth should be guided by rigorous research.” 



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