Trapped: How Fee-Based GPS Monitoring Puts a ‘Price Tag on Freedom’

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Photo by David Pacey via Flickr

William Edwards was giving a lift to a friend in Oakland, Ca., in November 2016 when he was stopped by police. After searching his car without a warrant, the officers found drugs in the friend’s bag.

Edwards was arrested, charged with possession for sale of drugs, and held on a bond he could not afford, although he didn’t know anything about the drugs. A cancer survivor, he requires daily treatment that he could not get in jail. Eventually, his health deteriorated to the point that the court agreed to release him if he wore a GPS tracking device.

He was remanded to the custody of Leaders in Community Alternatives (LCA), an Oakland-based for-profit company with a privatized supervision contract with Alameda County.

Once assigned to LCA, Edwards found himself in a financial trap.

LCA charged him $25.50 per day for the GPS tracking “services.” It demanded $532.50 just to enroll in the program and pay for the first two weeks. With an income barely over the poverty line for the Bay Area, Williams couldn’t afford to pay the fee. Although California law provides that people on monitors cannot be charged more than they can pay, LCA threatened to return him to jail if he did not pay their exorbitant fees.

This month, Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that fights to end the criminalization of poverty (I am Executive Director), filed a federal class action lawsuit against LCA, alleging that its business model amounts to racketeering based on testimony that LCA threatens to jail people if they do not pay LCA’s fees.

While GPS tracking — sometimes called “e-carceration” — is controversial, its problems are multiplied when the process is privatized instead of being run as part of a county’s public supervision agencies. Thousands of California residents have borne the brunt of LCA’s business model that generates profits by demanding $25.50 per day from individuals ordered to wear GPS tracking devices.

In July 2013, authorities in Alameda County, which includes the city of Oakland, contracted with LCA to take charge of the county’s electronic monitoring system for individuals released from custody and awaiting trial. LCA, a subsidiary of SuperCom, made Alameda an offer it couldn’t refuse: It would run the entire system of GPS tracking of individuals, and it wouldn’t charge the county a dime.

Instead, LCA would earn revenue by charging individuals a daily fee for wearing the electronic bracelets.

Not only did Alameda County put a price tag on freedom, but it also turned a blind eye when LCA set that amount at an unaffordable number. In doing so, it violated California law, constitutional principles, and common sense.

In a case from 1983 called Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court proclaimed that a defendant could not be jailed for failing to pay restitution if he didn’t have the money. In other words, no one can be punished simply for being poor. That is why California law requires that people on ankle monitors only be charged what they can afford.

But LCA puts no meaningful effort into assessing whether its “clients” can afford hundreds of dollars per month. The majority cannot afford the onerous fees LCA requires. And many of those individuals have not been convicted of any crime at all: they are pending trial while ordered to endure to 24-hour per day surveillance by LCA.

According to many subjected to LCA’s practices, the company threatens jail for those who cannot pay.

If someone threatened to lock you up if you didn’t pay them $25 every day, you’d call that extortion, and you’d probably call the police. Many who have been subjected to LCA’s practices complain that LCA is committing exactly this kind of extortion: demanding payment on threat of jail. It will be up to a jury to decide if LCA should be liable for racketeering and whether Alameda County should be liable for not protecting basic constitutional rights.

Edwards is a client of Equal Justice Under Law. But he’s not alone. Stories like his abound across the country.

According to a Pew study, the number of active monitoring devices increased 140 percent from 2005 to 2015, largely due to the rapid advancement of GPS technology, an advance that has coincided with the expansion of privatization. LCA is a relatively small player in the electronic monitoring industry.

Well-known names in the prison industrial complex such as Geo Group and Sentinel Offender Services engage in this practice for profit.

We all should ask ourselves whether we want a criminal justice system that allows private companies to profit from people within it — many of whom are indigent and all of whom are already struggling with the consequences of being accused or convicted of a crime.

Alameda County’s adoption of a “user-funded model” allows a private company to enrich its shareholders by placing a coercive burden upon indigent individuals. Privatization of our criminal justice system benefits no one except the companies exploiting people for profit.

We deserve a justice system that puts justice before profits, and too many counties like Alameda are privatizing justice at the expense of all of us.

Phil Telfeyan

Phil Telfeyan. Photo by Simon Edelman, Syncro Studios.

Editor’s Note: For another perspective on this topic, see Lawsuit Confronts Extortion of Prisoners by Electronic Monitoring Firm.

Phil Telfeyan is an attorney and the Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law, a non-profit civil rights organization leading the litigation in Edwards v. LCA, a class action lawsuit pending in federal court. William Edwards is one of Equal Justice Under Law’s clients and the lead plaintiff in the case against LCA. He welcomes comments from readers.

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