Outside of Hawaii, the use of electronic monitoring devices is all but commonplace.

With the high cost of incarceration, many states are increasingly turning to ankle bracelets as a more cost-effective way to supervise offenders — while freeing up space in prisons and jails.

Some 300,000 people are under electronic supervision each year across the country, and the number is steadily growing. Cook County in Illinois, for instance, had nearly 15,000 people on electronic tethers in 2014 — a 70 percent increase from the previous year.

But, in Hawaii, the concept of electronic monitoring has yet to fully take hold. Only 87 people are now under electronic supervision, compared to more than 4,000 behind bars at the state’s eight prisons and jails.

Efforts are underway to change that.

ankle electronic monitoring
Since the electronic monitoring device was developed in the 1960s, its use has exploded nationwide. Provided: Alcohol Monitoring Systems Inc.

Last week, a bipartisan group of 11 state senators introduced Senate Bill 2147 to launch a program to test the use of ankle bracelets as an alternative to incarceration.

Two other bills from the 2015 legislative session are also still in play: Senate Bill 517 would place some probationers under electronic supervision as a “cost-effective approach to deterring recidivism,” while Senate Bill 1020 would use ankle bracelets to monitor some parolees, probationers and those who are participating in the state’s work furlough program.

Only 87 people are now under electronic supervision in Hawaii, compared to more than 4,000 behind bars.

And the Hawaii Department of Public Safety has been running a pilot program since October to place a small number of furlough participants at the Kauai Community Correctional Center and Oahu Community Correctional Center under electronic supervision.

Under Gov. David Ige’s supplemental budget proposal, the Department of Public Safety would receive a boost of more than $160,000 to expand the program to monitor as many as 120 furlough participants.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard, the chief sponsor of SB 2147, says electronic monitoring is a perfect fit for Hawaii, given that the state’s prisons and jails are chronically overcrowded.

“The idea for the bill is to expand upon the existing program to allow electronic monitoring of nonviolent prisoners and parolees,” Gabbard said. It’s an effort “to balance the public safety with the need to keep the cost down for the state, while at the same time making it easier for (the inmates) to assimilate back into the society.”

Gabbard’s bill estimates that up to 15 percent of the state’s inmate population — nearly 900 offenders in all — could be monitored using ankle bracelets in the future.

Far Cheaper Than Incarceration

The electronic monitoring device was first developed in the 1960s by a pair of psychology students at Harvard University.

The original intent was to monitor the movements of juvenile offenders as a means to give them incentives to behave better: If they showed up at places where they were supposed to be on time, they got some rewards — a free pizza, for instance.

Two decades later, the use of monitoring devices became widespread — deployed for an ever-expanding range of purposes, including tracking pretrial offenders and supervising those on parole or probation.

It’s easy to see why: It costs about $150 to rent a monitoring unit for a month, while the price tag for holding one inmate behind bars is $140 a day in Hawaii, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Proponents also point to studies showing that electronic monitoring can reduce crime. A 2011 study in Florida, for instance, found that the use of electronic monitoring led to a 31 percent reduction in recidivism. Another study in 2012 estimated that ankle bracelets reduced arrests by 24 percent.

“I don’t feel that the (Department of Public Safety) has historically embraced electronic monitoring strongly. I have been pushing and advocating for it, but it’s been difficult.” — Sen. Will Espero

But the technology can have glitches. Devices can sometimes send false alerts — so many that law enforcement agencies can’t look into all of them carefully.

This has led to some dreadful outcomes: In 2013, for instance, a Denver man tore off his ankle bracelet, drove to the home of the Colorado corrections chief and killed him. That same year, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that thousands of high-risk sex offenders in California had removed GPS monitors knowing that they faced little risk of serving time for it.

And, increasingly, those under monitoring end up paying for their confinement, in the form of monthly fees imposed by private companies charged with the monitoring — in addition to installation costs and fees imposed for drug tests or other “services.”

According to a nationwide survey by National Public Radio, 49 states impose a daily fee of $5 to $25; Hawaii is the only state that doesn’t charge any fee.

All this gives pause to advocates for criminal justice reform.

“I have a mixed feeling about it,” said Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons. “I like the idea of getting people out of prison, because I think it’s an unhealthy and harmful environment, so it should be absolutely the last choice. But I worry about this sort of surveillance society.”

For the extensive use of electronic monitoring to succeed in Hawaii, Brady says those on ankle bracelets need to be offered an array of re-entry programs and other services. Otherwise, they’d be left to fend for themselves in an environment that led to them to commit a crime in the first place, she says.

For his part, scholar James Kilgore argues in his 2015 paper that more research is needed to gauge the impact of electronic monitoring.

“Before placing hundreds of thousands of people on ankle bracelets as an ‘alternative’ to incarceration, we need a deeper understanding of this technology,” Kolgore wrote. “Little effort has been made to examine how a monitor affects the individual wearing the ankle bracelet, let alone their families and communities. The ‘rights of monitored’ and others directly impacted remain unstated and unexplored.”

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center Public Safety Corrections officer. 18 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Proponents say electronic monitoring would help remedy overcrowding in the Oahu Community Correctional Center and other facilities in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Improved Prospects For Bills

Whether the three pending bills in the Senate can win the necessary support is unclear.

After all, the bills follow at least eight prior proposals related to electronic monitoring since 2009 that have stalled in the Legislature.

Gabbard’s bill is a carbon copy of Senate Bill 344, which failed to get a single hearing from the judiciary and public safety committees last year.

But Gabbard is sanguine about the prospect of his new bill, noting that Sens. Gilbert Keith-Agaran and Clarence Nishihara — the chairs of the judiciary and public safety committees, respectively — have signed on as co-sponsors.

“I’m hopeful that we can get the joint (judiciary-public safety) hearing this time around,” Gabbard said.

State Sen. Will Espero, who introduced SB 1020, says past bills sputtered because electronic monitoring hasn’t been a priority for the Department of Public Safety over the years.

“I don’t feel that the department has historically embraced electronic monitoring strongly. I have been pushing and advocating for it, but it’s been difficult,” Espero said. “When you don’t have the support from the department level, you basically end up having an appropriation bill that competes with 500 other appropriations bills. If it’s not a priority for the administration, then that can affect the outcome of our legislation.”

Given the recent interest in monitoring furlough participants, Espero is optimistic that the department officials will lobby harder this year.

“Sometimes, it takes a few years to get bills passed. I’m confident that we’ll get a good level of support for electronic monitoring this session,” Espero said. “It’ll definitely be a benefit to us, and it’ll also save us money.”

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