Since 2020, the number of individuals awaiting trial in San Francisco County who are required to wear an electronic monitoring (EM) device has increased by 308%. This explosion is the result of a decision in a case regarding defendants’ ability to pay cash bail and non-monetary release options. While many have applauded the solution as a way to end mass incarceration and reduce jail populations, others have pointed to the costs associated with pretrial monitoring—including psychological, social, and economic ones—and described it as an alternative form of incarceration.  

In new research, Sandra Susan Smith, director of the Wiener Center for Social Policy and faculty chair of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, closely followed the experiences of a large group of defendants enrolled in the pretrial monitoring program to study the effects of the new system.  

Working with a team of research assistants (Morgan Benson and Cierra Robson) and Harvard College students (Amisha Kambath, Isabel Levin, and Lilah Penner Brown), Smith conducted interviews of 66 defendants in the court-ordered pretrial EM program. On average, study participants were 37 years old, had 1.3 children, and lived in a household with fewer than two people; 49% were employed; and more than 40% were Black, despite Black people making up only about 5% of San Francisco’s population.

Sandra Susan Smith leaning on railing with brick building in the background.

“These findings have major implications for debates about pretrial EM's net-widening effects but also the inherent stickiness of the criminal legal system.”

Sandra Susan Smith

The research found:  

  • Prior life challenges, especially with housing insecurity and co-occurring disorders such as substance-abuse, made it much more difficult for defendants to meet pretrial program obligations with an EM device. 
  • EM devices made it more difficult for defendants to secure or keep a job and maintain  vital social connections because of the stigma of appearing convicted of a crime, even though the individual is awaiting trial. 
  • Program compliance was made difficult with technical problems with the EM devices themselves, including inaccuracy, unreliability, and inconsistency.  

“Few have studied the costs of electronic monitoring from the perspective of those who are impacted by this increasingly popular form of pretrial surveillance,” Smith said. “Our findings run counter to the logic that EMs impose fewer social costs to defendants than pretrial detention.”  

“Reforms like pretrial EM, while presumably meant as a move toward lower incarceration, end up trapping participants in cycles of interaction with the criminal legal system even before they have been convicted of a crime,” Smith said.  As a result, she added, “EM, like incarceration itself, reproduces inequalities by race and class and prevents participants from becoming full members of society.” 

Smith hopes that as reforms continue to happen in the criminal justice system, this research will illuminate some of the serious issues pretrial EM raises. And that San Francisco, specifically, will substantially scale back its use of pretrial EM devices. “These findings have major implications for debates about pretrial EM's net-widening effects but also the inherent stickiness of the criminal legal system.”

Complete study results can be found in the working paper: “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Social Costs of Pretrial Electronic Monitoring in San Francisco.”

Photography by Eric Gay/AP Photo. Portrait by by Jim Harrison.

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