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When Innocent Until Proven Guilty Costs $400 a Month—and Your Freedom

Nationwide, there’s a growing use of GPS monitoring for people charged with crimes. But the practice is largely unregulated, leaving many with huge personal and financial costs.
illustrated by Steenz
May 28, 2020, 5:09pm

This story was produced in partnership with the Bail Project, a nonprofit that provides assistance to people awaiting trial who cannot afford bail.

The machine clinging to Malea’s ankle is rubbing her skin raw. Dark purple scars and peeling flesh are visible when she lifts her jean cuff and pulls back her sock. When we met in the lobby of the Marion County Municipal Court, she had been wearing the GPS tracker for more than three months.

“It’s very heavy,” said Malea, who chose not to disclose her real name because it could jeopardize her open case. She is 19 and works at a fast food restaurant. She twisted the black strap around her ankle to expose more bruising and scarring. “The tighter they put it, the more it’s going to hurt.”

We were sitting on a bench outside an Indianapolis courtroom in December, after a brief appearance where a judge scheduled her trial two months out. Although she hasn't been convicted of any crime, she is being surveilled by Marion County in real time, 24 hours a day, with severe consequences if she makes a wrong move.

The device on her ankle transmits millions of data points produced daily by her body’s movements to a company called the Track Group, which has an office in downtown Indianapolis, a few blocks from where we met. If the data registers a misstep, the company’s employees will notify the county, which typically will dispatch sheriff’s deputies to make an arrest.

Since the Track Group strapped the machine to her ankle in August, Malea has been arrested twice for allegedly violating her conditions of release: Once when her device lost signal, and another time when she went to a neighborhood she didn't realize she was prohibited from entering. (Like many people subject to this kind of monitoring, certain areas have been designated off-limits for Malea based on where her alleged crime occurred.) She says both incidents were caused by faulty equipment and poor communication on the county’s part.

“I don’t think the county thinks I’m a threat to public safety,” she said, parting her red braids away from her face. “But the way they go about it makes you feel like they think you’re a threat. I don’t see why they think I would skip out on court, because I’ve never been in trouble before. I don’t see why I would ever be put in that category or looked at in that way.”

Major cities are increasingly using GPS monitoring as a way to reduce jail populations. In Cleveland, 838 people were referred to a private contractor to be outfitted with GPS monitors in the first year it rolled out pretrial services in conjunction with reduced use of cash bail, and similar policies are being adopted in Detroit and New York City.

Although GPS ankle monitoring has been touted as a reform to pretrial incarceration by the likes of Marion County and the American Jail Association—and has even been repurposed in Louisville, Kentucky, to enforce quarantines of people with known exposure to COVID-19—the practice often creates inequities of their own. That’s concerning, in part, because use of ankle monitoring appears to be growing amid the pandemic, as some counties release large numbers of people from jail to minimize the spread of the virus. In Chicago, for example, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office is holding people in jail even if a judge has cleared them for release on electronic monitoring because the county has run out of the devices.

In St. Louis, people put on electronic monitoring ahead of their trial must pay a daily fee plus interest if they fall behind on payments.

“It’s like you’re free but you’re not free,” said Ariana, a St. Louis client of the Bail Project. “I’m not free because my freedom is being controlled, and it’s being watched.”

In terms of the number of people on electronic monitoring, no place compares to Marion County and Indianapolis, which share a city-county governing system. There were more than 5,000 people in Indianapolis on GPS monitoring waiting for their day in court in 2018, which was more than double the amount from the year prior; a total of 14,000 people were under a similar type of surveillance in the city-county. Nationwide, Pew estimated the number of people on GPS monitoring at 200,000 five years ago.

Marion County says its unprecedented system of digital human tracking for people in pretrial proceedings allows the county to save money on costs of incarceration and for people to be home with their families and communities during the months they'll typically spend before appearing in front of a jury. But those who have to wear the devices complain of malfunctions, poor communication from county officials, and conditions that amount to imprisonment even though many of them, like Malea, have not even been convicted of a crime. (All of the sources in this story have been charged with some form of robbery.) About half of the people in the pretrial program are Black, despite the fact that Black people make up only 29 percent of the county’s population.

Here’s how it works: When a person is arraigned and puts up the money for bail, a judge will determine whether to also mandate they wear a GPS monitor before trial. If they rule that tracking is required, the person will be assigned a community corrections officer and sent to the Track Group to have the monitor attached.

All of the sources in this story were people who were helped by the Bail Project, and whom the court also ordered to wear ankle monitors as a condition of release from jail. Yet the same individuals who cannot afford cash bail are often forced to pay for electronic monitoring in order to be at liberty while their cases are pending. This cost can exceed $400 a month, and, counterintuitively, the county conducts no hearing into a person’s ability to pay this unless they’re employed.

In addition to this extraordinary cost for people who are sometimes enduring extreme poverty, the devices are far from harmless, operating more as a form of incarceration than an alternative to it. They unleash compounding problems on people forced to wear them, not only financially, but also on their health and mental wellbeing. Courts across the country are increasingly mandating that people wear GPS trackers while awaiting trial, even after posting cash bail. People who have gone through this system find wearing a monitor to be a series of indignities small and large accumulating to make daily life practically impossible.

Indianapolis and Marion County are the epicenter of this trend. The county did not answer a list of questions sent by VICE and The Bail Project addressing allegations made by people wearing GPS ankle monitors during pretrial release, including high rates of malfunctions. Several calls to the Track Group requesting comment were not returned.

Although people in Marion County must make regular payments “toward the privilege of being placed on” GPS surveillance—as noted in the contract they must sign upon having it attached—almost none of the people VICE spoke to were able to hold a regular job while being monitored.

The complications are numerous: Securing permission from an officer to attend a job interview, the stigma of meeting an employer while digitally shackled, and the need to charge the device at work, to name a few. It’s even worse for people working as independent contractors, who need to move freely to earn money.

Victor Hurley had worked for years remodeling houses on behalf of several land developers he’s known for a long time. When the court put him on home detention, he was too humiliated to admit he couldn’t leave his home. He came up with different excuses for why he couldn’t pick up jobs, and the calls eventually stopped coming in.

“Either I had an appointment or I had to see what my schedule would be like, but I knew I couldn’t do it,” Hurley said. “If you can’t work, they’ll find someone else who can... They think I’m full of shit, probably. I’m like, man, I want to work.”

It costs a person up to $14 a day, plus a $50 activation fee, to be on a monitor in Marion County—which puts it at the higher range of other jurisdictions that charge fees for electronic monitoring. Failure to pay for the trackers can result in jail time, adding pressure to find a job quickly. Even though Hurley’s charges were dismissed, he’s still on the hook for the months he wore the monitor.

But the county makes it difficult for people to find jobs.

Frank*, another man confined to his home in Indianapolis who has a pending trial, is living with his mom while he tries to get work. He has passed up job fairs and interviews because of stifling requirements that he inform an officer about his movements in advance.

“Sometimes I might not know where an address for a staffing agency is,” Frank said, but his community corrections officer will insist on this information before allowing him to leave his home. If he finds out about a job fair at the last minute, he can only go if he receives a timely approval from his officer. “She still takes forever to return my email—four to seven hours. It’s hindering, man. It’s frustrating.”

Those with jobs can feel too grateful just to be employed to ask for higher wages. As a server at Denny’s, Malea makes $3 an hour before tips.

“I definitely don't have six, seven, or even $300 to take out of my pocket and give to [the county],” Malea said. “There’s no way, it’s unrealistic. You have to pay bills to live."

Because of strict limits the county imposes on a person’s movements, a monitored person must rely on someone else to do basic survival tasks like buying groceries, adding stress to families. One report found 43 percent of more than 5,000 respondents said the trackers had a negative impact on their romantic partners; another study found that it made people who had been incarcerated less likely to ask family and friends for help in times of need.

Familial ties can be a critical factor in reducing a person’s contact with the criminal legal system, but GPS monitoring can isolate a person from their relatives. Marshall*, a grandfather in his late 40s confined to his home before trial who has a pending case, recalled how painful it has been to miss family functions.

“Family reunions come up and everybody wants to know if I can come, I say, ‘You know, I can’t,’” he said. “I don’t even think about those things because I’m not allowed to participate.”

The devices are prone to malfunction, people said. Nearly 40 percent of those in Marion County wearing monitors reported maintenance issues more than once at the end of 2019, though the county downplays this figure by alleging they “use ‘equipment issues’ as a reason to be able to leave their residence,” according to a document from community corrections citing Track Group’s own assessment.

In response to alerts indicating that a monitored person has violated their conditions of release—whether in error or otherwise—county officers have a high degree of discretion when deciding which violations to act on. One day soon after Track Group employees attached the machine to his ankle, Hurley’s car was surrounded by deputies and he was arrested as he pulled into a fast food restaurant.

The issue, Hurley later found out, was that his tracker had earlier registered a tampering violation, which can sometimes result from re-adjusting the machine. His community corrections officer didn’t believe him when he said it was a mistake.

“I was in shock, originally I didn’t even know we were getting pulled over,” Hurley said. He spent another week in jail, and his terms of release were elevated to include home detention, in addition to GPS monitoring.

These technical errors result in major life disruptions—but, incredibly, there is no independent oversight over devices’ functionality. Although the extent of malfunction is undocumented, at least one person from Indianapolis is currently suing the Track Group after his ankle monitor caught fire and left his leg with third degree burns.

The Track Group appears to have significant local influence. A contract directs Marion County to pay it $3.10 per tracked person per day, plus $16,666.67 a month for software services. The company’s executive director since 2012, Brian Barton, was previously the executive director of the county’s community corrections department for a decade. According to the company's SEC filing, the Track Group posted a record $34 million in revenue last year.

Matthew DeMichele, a researcher at the Research Triangle Institute, is a noted expert on monitoring technology and supports its use for people accused of domestic violence and directed by a judge to stay away from their accusers. But he finds Indianapolis’ use of electronic monitoring for people awaiting trial troublesome.

“It’s like the wild wild west out there with vendors,” DeMichele said. “There’s very little moral or ethical oversight over this industry, because the industry is leading the practice.”

Advocates believe the country is at a unique moment, in which jurisdictions can choose to move away from punitive pretrial practices that push people into the criminal justice system in the first place.

“We know from experience that the best approach is to offer support and help address a person’s needs,” said Devi Davis, a client advocate for The Bail Project – Indianapolis. “Our model of Community Release with Support does that in a simple way. We call clients to remind them of their court dates. We arrange for transportation if they cannot afford it. And we connect people to services if they ask for them, such as agencies that can help with housing, mental healthcare, or other needs.”

A needs-based approach would be a radical departure from the current system in Indianapolis, which appears set on making life harder for people awaiting trial. Using the Bail Project’s model, in which an advocate sends consistent text reminders to people about their court dates and helps them find community resources, fewer than 5 percent of 172 Bail Project clients in 2019 missed a court date—undermining the idea that you need bail or digital monitoring for people to attend their hearings.

For anybody who has experienced either, there’s no question that the process is part of the punishment.

“They say you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” said Joshua, a 17-year-old charged as an adult and living on home detention. Having a GPS monitor “is like saying, ‘You’re guilty, just wait until you go to court, that’ll be the final thing. They’re looking at you as if you did this. This right now is time served.”