Electronic monitoring of youth, and data sharing, widely used in California’s juvenile justice system

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November 16, 2020

By Catherine Crump, Clinical Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law

A new report released today by the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley, School of Law, answers five important questions about the use of electronic monitoring of youth in the California juvenile justice system.

This report, which I co-authored along with my former student Amisha Gandhi (Law ’20), is a follow up to a 2017 report issued by the Samuelson Clinic and its partner the East Bay Community Law Center, looking at the electronic monitoring terms and conditions young people must follow while in California’s juvenile system. The 2017 report found that these terms are generally strict and burdensome, and unrealistic for young people (or even most adults) to follow. For example, as the Associate Press described in its coverage of that report, some rules required a parent to be home at all times or for a young person’s schedule to be determined a week in advance.

As today’s report shows, electronic monitoring technology is widespread in the California juvenile justice system, with some 90 % of counties using the technology to track young people. This technology tracks young people wherever they go, typically through a GPS-enabled ankle bracelet that cannot be removed. Although it is now widespread, the impact of electronic monitoring on the juvenile justice system is poorly understood.

Here are the five questions we sought to answer:

How widespread is this technology in California? The data we collected demonstrates that the technology is widespread–53 of 58 California counties have electronic monitoring programs.

How many young people are tracked in a specific year? In 2017, the latest year for which state-wide data is available, we found that approximately 10,000 young people were tracked. Los Angeles County, California’s largest county by population, tracked some 3,485 youth. Alameda County, where Berkeley is located, tracked 462. These numbers demonstrate that electronic monitoring plays a significant role in the experience of young people going through the juvenile justice system. For comparison, during 2017, there were 71,791 referrals of youth to California juvenile probation departments overall. (Note that these numbers reflect pre-Covid reality. Like every other aspect of life, the juvenile system has been radically impacted by Covid, with admissions to the system falling substantially in many counties.)

What technology do counties use to track young people? Today there are two types of electronic monitoring ankle bracelets. Radio-frequency ankle bracelets can only detect a person’s distance from a home-based receiver. By contrast, GPS ankle bracelets can track people wherever they go. Of the 53 counties with electronic monitoring programs, 44 use GPS in whole or in part. GPS is now the dominant technology for electronic monitoring.

What difference does GPS tracking make? In theory, the difference in technology could change how young people are supervised. Because radio-frequency devices can only detect people’s distance from a home-based receiver, they can only be used to enforce house arrest. Being confined to one’s home is obviously very restrictive. By contrast, GPS bracelets can track people’s movements wherever they go. In theory, this could be used to offer less restrictive conditions or more tailored ones, for example requiring only that a young person avoid a victim’s house or stay in the county. However, the change in technology by and large has not changed how electronic monitoring is implemented. Of the 44 counties that use GPS, 36 use the technology exclusively to impose house arrest. That is no different than what can be done with radio-frequency monitoring.

To what extent are probation departments sharing electronic monitoring data with law enforcement agencies? We asked this question because one concern youth advocates often raise about the use of electronic monitoring is whether it pulls young people deeper into the juvenile system through the detection of additional, often minor, violations. Sometimes these violations are technical violations of monitoring rules themselves (e.g. not charging the device) rather than acts that violate the law. We found that 35 of 53 counties do share electronic monitoring data with law enforcement agencies, albeit primarily on a case-by-case basis. Notably, three counties provide all of their electronic monitoring data to law enforcement agencies, including Orange County, which is the second-largest user of electronic monitoring in the state. This is the first time we have known of this sort of mass sharing of data in California juvenile probation departments.

In Orange County, certain law enforcement agencies can log into the system and engage in “crime scene correlation,” which involves checking to see if any young people on EM were at the scene of the crime.

Given the lack of transparency about the functioning of electronic monitoring on youth, the questions this report answers add significantly to our limited store of knowledge. That we know so little is also symptomatic of how we run our justice system in this country: with little-to-no evaluation of how various interventions advance the system’s goals. Probation departments are underfunded and lack staff with the expertise to evaluate policy choices. As a result, technologies like electronic monitoring become widespread with little sense of how they fit into the system’s overarching goals of controlling crime and rehabilitating youth.

The Samuelson Clinic’s work was conducted in collaboration with the East Bay Community Law Center, which provides legal services to low-income people in the East Bay. EBCLC brought this issue to the attention of the clinic and continues to do the work of representing young people going through the juvenile system.

We compiled this report based on extensive public records act requests. All of the documents we gathered are available in a repository here.