Active electronic monitoring a viable alternative to pretrial detention

Across the United States, approximately 450,000 people are held in jail while awaiting trial, costing taxpayers more than $38 million on a daily basis. By implementing active electronic monitoring, states can establish an effective alternative to pretrial detention, all while promoting public safety and decreasing the cost of incarceration. 

When it comes to dealing with defendants during the time between arrest and trial, judges have several options. The first option is to release the defendant on his own recognizance — meaning that the court trusts the defendant to continue to appear in court on scheduled dates without paying bail or being detained. Usually those released have been charged with a nonviolent or less-serious misdemeanor like as shoplifting, traffic violations, technical crimes and first offenses.

{mosads}The second option is to waive the assignment of bail and require that, prior to and for the duration of the trial, the defendant must remain incarcerated. Some reasons a judge may consider when holding a person without bail are the seriousness of the alleged offense, the defendant’s criminal history, reason to believe the defendant might flee the court’s jurisdiction to avoid trial, or that the defendant is likely to commit further offenses before the trial.


The final option is to assign bail. Judges consider myriad factors — including statutory bail schedules, the nature of the crime and the accused’s ties to the community — to determine how much money the defendant must pay to be released from jail pending her next court date. For example, if a person has been arrested for possession of a controlled substance, a judge might set bail at $3,000.

If the defendant does not or cannot post the bail amount, she is held in prison. This stage, known as pretrial detention, is the process of detaining a defendant after arrest but before a trial has occurred. These individuals — who are accused of crimes but have not yet been convicted — are often sent to prison before trial because they don’t have the financial ability to post bail. In fact, 90 percent of people subjected to pretrial detention remain in jail because of a lack of money.

Pretrial detention disproportionately affects poorer individuals and families who are more likely to come into conflict with the criminal justice system. These individuals are not only more likely to be detained awaiting trial, they are less able to pay bail for release. Those held in pretrial detention are separated from support systems and often lose their jobs. The socioeconomic shocks of pretrial detention can send an individual into homelessness which, when combined with a lack of employment, can increase his propensity for criminal activity.

Active electronic monitoring (AEM) is an option for individuals who fall somewhere in between those who are released on recognizance and those who are incarcerated before trial. AEM allows the accused to be released pending disposition of her criminal case and to remain in the community before trial. It also allows accused individuals to work and support their families, which is far better than forcing them to sit idle in jail for several months.

AEM provides constant location detection services via GPS and is worn by a person either on the ankle or wrist. It can successfully monitor curfew requirements or even establish “exclusion zones” around specific locations where an AEM participant may not enter those geographic areas. Importantly, an AEM system can send notifications as soon as it detects rule-breaking, which allows police to immediately intervene to reinstate compliance.

People who would be eligible for AEM generally fit into one of the following categories: those who are at a low risk of committing new offenses, those who do not have a prior criminal conviction, those who are residents of the county where they were arrested, and those who would be able to pay for the costs associated with the monitoring device.

AEM works to ensure these individuals return to court to face criminal changes. It has been shown to be effective in reducing misbehavior during the pretrial period. In Florida, for example, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department reported that 99.6 percent of people under AEM appeared as required for court and 96 percent of people did not commit a new crime.

While low-income or indigent people who have been arrested are not barred from electronic monitoring on cost alone, fees are the biggest issue facing widespread use of AEM. In most places that use monitoring, some or all of the fees are passed on to the user. However, since the average cost monitoring is about $6 a month and the average cost to house an individual in a jail is $60 each day, it would be financially beneficial for municipalities, counties and states to invest in AEM. 

By implementing more active electronic monitoring programs as an alternative to pretrial incarceration, public safety can be preserved and the costs to the taxpayer can be decreased.

Jesse Kelley is a policy analyst and State Affairs Manager for Criminal Justice at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates for limited government.

Tags AEM Criminal justice Criminal justice reform Jesse Kelley Law

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