Opinion: Private electronic monitoring companies are a bad option — for clients, courts and taxpayers
By Henry Druschel
The writer is a public defender in Charles County. The views expressed are his own.
In recent years, the American public has come to understand the immense damage caused by the outsourcing of the criminal legal system to for-profit businesses, most notably in the context of private prisons. But Maryland is currently in the midst of another ill-conceived experiment with an outsourced criminal legal system: private electronic monitoring of pretrial defendants. Private electronic monitoring costs more taxpayer money and provides a worse service to both courts and defendants. The time has come for lawmakers to take action.
When someone is arrested and charged with a crime, Maryland judges may decide to release them from jail on the condition that they be subject to electronic monitoring. A defendant on electronic monitoring wears an ankle bracelet that tracks their location 24/7 and sends that information to a central office that monitors the defendant and notifies the courts if they go somewhere they’re not supposed to go. In 17 of Maryland’s 24 counties, the people placing ankle bracelets and monitoring defendants are county officials. But in the other seven counties, including the City of Baltimore, that responsibility is outsourced to private contractors.
Privately run monitoring services have no place in Maryland. They cause unnecessary harm to criminal defendants, they impose unnecessary costs on Maryland taxpayers, and they open the door to unprecedented graft, neglect, and abuse.
I am a public defender in Charles County, one of the seven Maryland counties that outsources its electronic monitoring services to private contractors. My colleagues and I have seen firsthand the harms that this outsourcing causes. For example, a judge ordered one of our clients released on electronic monitoring. But after that client and his family went through all the necessary steps to obtain a monitor from a private contractor, an employee of that contractor decided he didn’t like this client’s “attitude” and refused to place the monitor. As a result, this client spent an extra week in jail while his family scrambled to retain another monitoring contractor.
Another client had already been released from jail when a judge ordered him to obtain electronic monitoring by the end of the day. He immediately contacted a private monitoring company, filled out the required paperwork, and went to their office to have the monitor put on. That was when the company told him he had to pay a monthly $100 “connectivity fee,” despite the fact that this kind of double-dipping — getting paid twice, by the state and the defendant, for the same service — is explicitly prohibited by Maryland law. Faced with the choice between paying an illegal and extortionate fee or violating a direct court order, this client paid up.
Privately monitored defendants even face the risk of harassment. An employee of a contractor in Charles County was recently indicted and arrested after being accused of sexually harassing a defendant he was tasked with monitoring. According to prosecutors, he offered to let this defendant violate a judge’s order and leave her home if she provided him with a “dirty girl.” Nearly a year has elapsed since this interaction was first reported, and that person is still employed at the same contractor.
Private electronic monitoring isn’t just worse for defendants than publicly administered monitoring programs; it’s also more expensive to Maryland taxpayers. For instance: from January to June of 2021, the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office budgeted $126,732 for monitoring services. In that period, they monitored an average of 64 people per month, spending approximately $11 per defendant per day. But in counties outsourcing electronic monitoring to private contractors, the state judiciary pays $15 per defendant per day — nearly 40% higher, even before taking into account the judiciary’s own administrative costs.
Maryland officials have struggled to even keep track of how much private electronic monitoring contractors are costing the state. According to a recent report from the judiciary, these contractors’ invoices are rife with errors. As a result, the judiciary’s review process has been “extremely time consuming,” and of the $2 million in invoices submitted through December 1, 2022, only $730,000 have been validated as legitimate.
The criminal legal system always presents opportunities for graft, neglect, and abuse of power. But the record in Maryland is clear: electronic monitoring is worse — for the people being monitored, for courts, and for taxpayers — when it is outsourced to private contractors. Seventeen counties already run their own monitoring services; it’s time for the other seven to follow suit.