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In Indianapolis, Second Thoughts About Electronic Ankle Bracelets

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

About 125,000 people in the U.S. are estimated to be wearing electronic ankle bracelets right now. Cities across the country are choosing to put bracelets on people rather than put people in jail. Now, Indianapolis has the nation's largest electronic monitoring program. But as Jill Sheridan of member station WFYI reports, some in the criminal justice field are having second thoughts about the practice.

JILL SHERIDAN, BYLINE: In the past five years, Indianapolis' Marion County steadily increased the number of people monitored electronically either on pretrial or as part of a sentence. Marion County Community Corrections Director Tyler Bouma says the last time they ran the numbers...

TYLER BOUMA: We were clearly the largest municipal user of electronic monitoring of any agencies we could find.

SHERIDAN: An estimated 4,300 people are monitored daily, compared to 2,700 people in all of Chicago's Cook County. Bouma says the system does more than ease jail overcrowding. He says when people are out of jail, they can work, stay close to families receive, addiction treatment and maybe turn their lives around. He sees electronic monitoring as another tool.

BOUMA: That helps us raise accountability level for our clients and provide some structure for our clients so that we can work with them to raise their readiness to change level and then address those criminogenic needs, those psychosocial needs.

SHERIDAN: But as the number of people wearing monitors increases, so do concerns. Fraternal Order of Police President Rick Snyder says the practice can place violent criminals back on the streets. He says the program is being violated about 100 times a month, as those wearing the devices cut them off.

RICK SNYDER: Oftentimes, we can't begin even physically looking for them for at least, usually, 48 hours. You can commit a lot of acts - bad acts - in two days.

SHERIDAN: The county admits they don't have exact data on how many people cut off their monitors. In Illinois last year, similar concerns about lack of data led to a new law requiring yearly reviews of who is put on electronic monitoring and why. And while most aren't cutting off bracelets, many say the system isn't helping people turn their lives around.

Caroline Vance, a social worker with the Marion County public defender's office, says people assigned to wear the ankle bracelets also have to pay for them. Corrections charges a $50 fee to get the device and a daily fee topping out at $14.

CAROLINE VANCE: For our clients who are living at or below the poverty line, that is a significant amount of money out of their budget every single month that could be used for other things.

SHERIDAN: More cities are partnering with private companies to outsource monitoring programs. And for those companies, community corrections is a growing revenue source. Matthew DeMichele, who studies the trend for a nonprofit research group, says this is a problem.

MATTHEW DEMICHELE: What we're saying is that we're going to allow vendors to take over this interest. They can make money off of them, but they don't have to document anything. They don't have to know where they're at or what happens to them - none of that.

SHERIDAN: DeMichele is concerned about a lack of accountability and joins others calling for more study before expanding monitoring. But for those who wear the bracelets, it's often better than the alternative.

Brishon Bond is facing burglary charges. He wears an ankle bracelet on pretrial.

BRISHON BOND: I've sat in the cell and not been able to work, not been able to see my family. Certainly, I wish that I didn't have this thing on my ankle. I feel a little bit like a tagged pigeon. But it could always be worse.

SHERIDAN: For those in the criminal justice system, it may beat jail time, but there's still many questions about if electronic monitoring does what it purports to and if it is good public policy.

For NPR News, I'm Jill Sheridan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.