New report finds San Francisco dramatically increased use of pretrial electronic monitoring during past four years

San Francisco, Nov 22, 2022 — A new report from the nonpartisan California Policy Lab shows that San Francisco has increasingly turned to electronic monitoring as a pretrial release option. The report finds the use of pretrial electronic monitoring (EM) in San Francisco increased 200% since 2018 (and more than 1,500% since 2017), an increase driven largely by the In Re Humphrey court decision and also by a County effort to curtail the jail population during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the increased use of pretrial EM, the authors also found that fewer than half (38%) of the people assigned to it successfully complete their cycles.

Pretrial EM is a digital surveillance program that tracks the location and movements of people released to the community while they await the resolution of their criminal case. A locked plastic bracelet is attached to the person’s ankle, which includes a GPS tracking device that notifies the Sheriff’s Office if the person fails to comply with the terms of their release, which could include geographic restrictions, curfews, or stay-away orders.

San Francisco, along with many jurisdictions across the country, has shifted to EM as an alternative to pretrial incarceration. Despite its growing use, there is limited knowledge about the operations and outcomes of these programs. This report analyzes cases released to pretrial EM between 2018-2021 to show what types of cases are being released to this option, outcomes for people assigned to this type of release, and challenges with administering the program.

The report shows that as the number of cases released to pretrial EM increased, the number of people who completed the program (defined as not being terminated early) has decreased – from nearly 50% in 2018 down to 31% in 2021. This decline is likely related to changes in the characteristics of people who are released to pretrial EM. This includes a 20% increase in the share of individuals who are assessed as being at the highest risk for a new arrest or failure to appear at a court hearing and a doubling of the share of people who are unhoused or unstably housed, which can create challenges for keeping the ankle monitors charged, which is a requirement of release.

“Local leaders are increasingly turning to electronic monitoring as an alternative to pretrial incarceration, including here in San Francisco,” explains co-author Alissa Skog, a Researcher at the California Policy Lab. “In theory, this could avoid some of the problems associated with pretrial detention, like job-loss and disruptions in childcare. However, only about 40% of people who are released to pretrial electronic monitoring are successfully completing their cycles. Our report identifies some of the likely reasons behind the high rate of early terminations, and also provides recommendations for improving how this program works.”

Key findings
• The use of pretrial EM increased more than twenty-fold between 2017 and 2021. San Francisco rarely used pretrial EM prior to 2018, averaging 75 cases per year. In 2018, more than 550 cases were released to pretrial EM and the annual caseload increased to more than 1,650 in 2021.
• More than one-third of people on pretrial EM are unhoused/unstably housed.
• Eighty-five percent of people on pretrial EM are booked on a felony charge and approximately two-thirds were rated at the greatest risk of new arrest or failure to appear in court using a standardized pretrial risk assessment tool.
• Approximately 40% of people on pretrial EM successfully complete the program. However, the completion rates are lower amongst people who are unhoused/unstably housed at 20%.
• People are at the greatest risk of termination within the first few weeks of their pretrial EM period: the median time to termination is 15 days.

Additional Background
A Pretrial EM Cycle is defined as a specific release on pretrial EM. Releases to pretrial EM can occur at arraignment or at any subsequent appearance. A single cycle may include multiple court cases. Individuals may also be released to multiple cycles of pretrial EM over time. This report links data from the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, and Sentinel Offender Services, LLC.

The California Policy Lab creates data-driven insights for the public good. Our mission is to partner with California’s state and local governments to generate scientific evidence that solves California’s most urgent issues, including homelessness, poverty, criminal justice reform, and education inequality. We facilitate close working partnerships between policymakers and researchers at the University of California to help evaluate and improve public programs through empirical research and technical assistance.

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