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San Francisco needs to have a real public dialogue about its electronic monitoring program

On April 2nd, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is scheduled to approve a third amendment to the Sheriff’s electronic monitoring contract with Leaders in Community Alternatives (LCA), extending the term by three months and increasing the amount by $465,000 to $2,465,000.

At the Budget and Finance Subcommittee meeting last week, Sheriff’s CFO Crispin Hollings said the extra time is needed during the transition to a new contractor and the extra money is needed since the January 2018 Humphrey decision and the reform of California’s cash bail system. San Francisco Superior Court judges are now considering a defendant’s ability to pay bail at the arraignment hearing. For individuals unable to afford bail, who are otherwise eligible for release, judges are seeking the least restrictive non monetary condition (LRNMC) for release. Electronic monitoring provided at county expense falls within that category and it appears San Francisco Superior Court judges are now approving Own Recognizance release with electronic monitoring as the LRNMC in many cases.

According to Sheriff Hennessy, in the wake of the Humphrey decision, the number of participants in the Sheriff’s electronic monitoring has more than tripled, from 175 in 2017 to 758 in 2018. In April 2018, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Officer converted its electronic monitoring unit to a 24/7 operation. Given the increased reliance on electronic monitoring as an alternative to custody for both pretrial and sentenced individuals in San Francisco County, it is especially important that the annual approval of the rules and regulations of the Sheriff’s electronic monitoring program receive the proper open and public discussion required by state law.

On paper, electronic monitoring as an alternative to incarceration may sound like a win-win situation but the reality may be quite different, especially for pretrial detainees. The rules and regulations of the Sheriff’s Electronic Monitoring program are extensive and effectively extend to every member of the participants’ household. Each person fitted with an electronic monitor subjects their entire household and family to increased contacts with the criminal justice system.

Every adult co-resident of an electronically monitored individual must sign a written agreement to comply with all terms and conditions including potential searches of the residence 24/7. Regardless of the nature of the charges, all monitored individuals are subject to random drug testing. Alcohol and any non-prescription drug use is prohibited.

While these restrictions are obvious and logical for a sentenced inmate serving home detention, the same does not necessarily hold true for pretrial detainees. A July 2015 report on Pretrial Detention by the Public Policy Institute of California noted: “Assessments of intensive supervision in the 1980s showed that frequent supervision contacts, drug testing, electronic monitoring, and strict behavioral requirements actually produced worse results than less intensive forms of supervision. Not surprisingly, intensive supervision led to the detection of more noncompliance, minor offenses, and technical violations of supervision, which, in turn, led to more revocations of parole and greater reliance on custodial punishments.”

More studies are needed into the potential pros and cons of electronic monitoring especially given the availability of less restrictive non monetary conditions, such as regular, in person visits with a correctional officer and/or weekly telephone call check ins, that may be equally or more effective and less invasive than electronic monitoring in guaranteeing court appearances.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s electronic monitoring program serves sentenced inmates in lieu of incarceration or as a condition of probation or parole and pretrial inmates in lieu of custody. The distinction is important. Sentenced inmates have been tried and convicted and are serving out a punishment. Limitations on their behavior and movement are to be expected, i.e. no alcohol or drug use, no parties, etc. Pretrial inmates have only been charged. They have not been convicted of any crime and are presumed innocent. Yet the current rules and regulations of the San Francisco Sheriff’s electronic monitoring program do not appear to include any distinctions in the treatment of pretrial detainees versus sentenced inmates.

For a city considered a pioneer in criminal justice reform, San Francisco has engaged in very few substantive discussions of the rules and regulations of the Sheriff’s electronic monitoring program. In 2018 and 2017, the annual approvals required by the California Penal Code each lasted less than five minutes and no public comment was received. The penal code imposes several other responsibilities upon the local Board of Supervisors regarding the operation of a County’s electronic monitoring program including approval of the correctional officer’s authority to operate the electronic monitoring program via written contracts with private entities.

In June 2013 and again in April 2014, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi introduced legislation requesting authority to operate the County’s electronic monitoring program via a written contract with a private entity. Both times supervisors refused his request. The current electronic monitoring contract with LCA was scheduled for approval at the April 16, 2014 Budget and Finance Subcommittee meeting but Supervisors Mark Farrell, Eric Mar and John Avalos, suddenly and without any explanation, refused to approve the contract.

In violation of the Board’s legislative protocols, they completely changed the subject and title of the legislation. Only the rules and regulations of the program and evidence of the contractor’s liability were approved. Despite the lack of Board authorization required by the penal code, on May 1, 2014, LCA began operating the county’s electronic monitoring program via a written contract with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. In the nearly five years since, LCA has shackled more than 1500 individuals with electronic ankle monitors on behalf of the City and County of San Francisco.

The supervisors did approve two one-year extensions of the LCA contract in 2017 and 2018. The 2018 approval occurred just a few months before federal extortion and racketeering charges were filed against LCA for its electronic monitoring contract with Alameda County.

Supervisors Malia Cohen, Sandra Fewer and Eric Mar recommended the 2018 legislation without asking a single question about the contract extension or the rules and regulations of the Sheriff’s electronic monitoring program. The current LCA contract expires April 30, 2019. For nearly thirty years, electronic monitoring has been a central component of San Francisco’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the local jail population. It is an important public policy issue that warrants a substantive, transparent and public dialogue.

Anmarie Mabbut is a San Francisco attorney and open government advocate specializing in municipal fee legislation, public-private partnerships and public park access. She can be reached at

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