When 16-year-old Ramon* was caught in possession of stolen property — a stereo that had been lifted from a high school — a judge in Alameda County’s juvenile court placed him on probation.
Like many youth across the state, Ramon’s probation terms included the provision that he be monitored by an electronic device. In Ramon’s case, this was a GPS sensor attached to his ankle that tracked his movements.
But according to Ramon’s lawyer, the device did little to help the teenager learn from his mistakes and get back on the right track. In fact, the rules associated with electronic monitoring only hastened a ride deeper into the county’s juvenile justice system, Kate Weisburd said.
Ramon’s situation is typical in California, where an unknown number of children are monitored by electronic devices each day, despite little oversight of the practice.
“If you walked up to any juvenile courthouse in California and talked with a young person and their family, you’d get stories just like it,” said Weisburd, director of the Youth Defender Clinic with the East Bay Community Law Center.
Over the course of the seven months Ramon was electronically monitored, he spent about half that time locked up in Alameda County’s juvenile hall, including on his birthday and Christmas.
Ramon, who struggles with a learning disability, was detained on 10 different occasions, not because he had committed a new offense, but he because he had violated one of the dozens of rules associated with the GPS device on his ankle.
One violation was for staying out a little past his curfew. Another stint in Alameda’s juvenile hall resulted from temporarily removing the uncomfortable ankle monitor.
Researchers from the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley and the East Bay Community Law Center released a report this week that hopes to shed the light on electronic monitoring practices across the state.
According to the report, 51 of California’s 58 counties use some form of electronic device to monitor youth in the juvenile justice system. Judges are able to order the use of electronic monitoring devices for youth charged in juvenile delinquency courts, sometimes while they await trial or as a condition of probation.
Most are ankle-attached GPS devices that track the location of a juvenile through satellites and cellular towers. Radio frequency transmitters are also used, though they can only track an individual’s location at home.
In Los Angeles County, home of the largest juvenile justice system in the country, there are more than 360 youth being monitored electronically on any given day. Los Angeles County is rare in that it shares such data with the state. Most counties do not report how much they rely on the practice.
According to the report, many families involved with California’s juvenile justice system — predominately from communities of color — must foot the bill for the cost of GPS sensors, usually through monthly fees.
Additionally, there is little oversight of how electronic monitoring is used in the state, and there is wide variation in how counties administer the devices.
A 2016 survey conducted by Pew Charitable Trusts found a proliferation of electronic monitoring devices among adults in the criminal the justice system. But without closer scrutiny, juvenile justice advocates are concerned that the rules of electronic monitoring are just copied from the adult system, with little regard to the needs of children.
As a result, broad use of electronic monitoring devices undermines the rehabilitative goals of California’s juvenile justice system, Weisburd said.
The Electronic Monitoring of Youth in the California Juvenile Justice System report compiled program rules for the use of monitoring devices for all counties in the state. That ranges from as few as eight in Solano County to as many as 56 in Lassen County.
Weisburd said these are rules are sometimes difficult for young people to observe, leading many to cycle through jails because of violations of those rules.
In Alameda County, where Ramon lives, there are more than 40 overlapping restrictions related to how the devices are used, she said. That includes rules such as “I will have no contact with my friends at my home without my parent present/guardian and approving. I understand that I am limited to one visitor at a time.” and “I agree to allow anyone by the Probation Department to my home at any time to verify that I am there.”
Electronic GPS devices are often considered a beneficial alternative to incarceration, but harsh rules can often take a toll on children and prevent them from taking part in extracurricular activities and jobs.
“Not having peer interactions or prosocial activities and being confined to one’s home,” Weisburd said, “that doesn’t help rehabilitation; that just makes kids feel alone and more disconnected.”
*The name of the young person has been changed to protect his privacy.