Tracking the Trackers: An Examination of Electronic Monitoring of Youth in Practice

Catherine Crump - UC Berkeley School of Law
Vol. 53
December 2019
Page 795
Although vast numbers of young people in the juvenile justice system are subject to electronic monitoring, its rise has occurred with little reflection or evaluation by anyone, including the probation departments that implement it. As a result, we know surprisingly little about electronic monitoring’s practical effects. This Article fills that gap by presenting three findings about juvenile electronic monitoring, grounded in the results of hundreds of Public Records Act requests I filed with probation departments across California. First, while many have hailed electronic monitoring as a potential alternative to incarceration, available evidence suggests it is instead “net widening,” expanding control over young people who would otherwise have received less burdensome terms of release. Second, the technological innovation of GPS, instead of inspiring penological innovation in the form of new types of electronic monitoring programs, has instead merely been used by probation departments to enforce house arrest. But house arrest rules were already too burdensome for many youths to follow consistently, and electronic monitoring that detects every violation, no matter how minor, risks further over-enforcement. Third, three converging trends may lead probation departments to adopt even more intrusive forms of electronic monitoring in the future: (1) advances in technology to allow monitoring of a broader range of behaviors; (2) the evolution of social norms to permit more extensive monitoring of individuals’ bodies and movements; and (3) the intervention of private contractors eager to force enhanced electronic monitoring’s adoption. The Article closes by presenting recommendations for policymakers that flow from these findings. To push back against net widening, county governments — not the families of young people — should have to pay for the technology. To avoid young people “failing out” of electronic monitoring too frequently, probation departments should adopt guidelines to distinguish serious violations from trivial ones and mete out consequences accordingly. Finally, given the possibility of more invasive monitoring, probation departments should adopt policies that articulate a clear vision of what they wish to accomplish through the technology, and how they will manage the data that it generates.
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