New Report Examines Growth of E-Carceration in the U.S.

By CN Staff

NEW YORK CITY—On January 30, the Vera Institute of Justice issued a report—People on Electronic Monitoring—on the prevalence of electronic monitoring (EM) in the criminal legal and immigration systems in the United States. This comprehensive analysis reveals a steep increase in EM use over the past 15 years. It is the most comprehensive count to date on electronic monitoring in the U.S.

EM is a form of digital surveillance that tracks people’s physical location, movement, or other markers of behavior (such as blood alcohol level). It is commonly used in the criminal legal system as a condition of pretrial release or post-conviction supervision and for people in civil immigration proceedings who are facing deportation.

The report reveals a significant increase in the use of electronic monitoring (EM) in the United States. From 2005 to 2021, the number of people under EM supervision grew nearly fivefold. This growth rate accelerated in recent years, particularly within the immigration system. Between 2021 and 2022, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) more than tripled the number of adults placed on EM, reaching a total of 360,000 people.

Despite claims that electronic monitoring serves as an alternative to incarceration, the report shows its increased usage in many cases. EM has expanded the reach of the criminal legal and immigration system, subjecting more people to surveillance and control. However, the report also highlights several jurisdictions that have successfully implemented jail decarceration strategies while reducing surveillance measures. These examples demonstrate the potential for reducing incarceration rates without resorting to increased electronic monitoring.

The report further sheds light on a critical aspect of EM implementation: its tendency to coexist with, rather than replace, physical detention. Instead of reducing incarceration rates, EM often expands surveillance and control over people who might otherwise be free. This concerning trend is further exacerbated by the lack of regulation in the EM industry, which has resulted in a decentralized and unaccountable landscape dominated by private companies. These private companies frequently make claims about the efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and reliability of EM technology. However, the report shows that EM produces harm in ways comparable to jails and prisons, essentially constituting an alternative form of incarceration. Furthermore, the adverse effects of EM are disproportionately felt by communities of color, deepening existing inequalities.

EM has been shown to carry substantial emotional and physical harms, place onerous restrictions on people’s lives, compromise people’s privacy, and present an ongoing threat of incarceration. However, in contrast to other aspects of incarceration and community supervision, there is no national survey or reporting requirement for the number of people on EM. Vera researchers collected data from criminal legal system agencies in all 50 states and more than 500 counties—as well as from federal courts, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and ICE—to produce the most comprehensive count of the national EM population to date.

The report demonstrates the urgent need for local, state, and federal governments to undertake oversight and prevent harm to people subject to EM. It challenges the notion that EM is inherently a humane and just alternative to incarceration and calls for a reassessment of its impact on individuals, communities, and the broader criminal legal system.