Marissa Alexander Has Been Released from Prison - But She Still Isn't Free

Human Rights

Marissa Alexander, the Florida mother who was sentenced in 2012 to 20 years in prison for firing warning shots at an allegedly abusive husband, will leave prison on Tuesday to spend the final two years of her reduced sentence in the relative comfort of her home.

When Alexander was first put on trial, her defense team tried to invoke the same stand-your-ground defense that allowed George Zimmerman to walk free. In her case, however, the self-defense argument was not accepted, leading to outrage and a “Free Marissa” campaign that ultimately led to a re-trial. Now under the terms of a plea deal reached last November, her sentence has been reduced to five years including time served, the last two of which will be spent under house arrest.

Alexander will be joining a growing number of offenders, including probationers, parolees, pre-trial detainees, drunk drivers and sex offenders, who are ordered by courts to undergo electronic monitoring. But although two years of home monitoring must come with its share of relief for Alexander, who was facing the prospect of life in prison if her re-trial backfired, she may find that electronic surveillance is anything but easy.

Electronic monitoring was introduced to the US criminal justice system in 1984. The technology was quickly embraced by states and offenders alike, both as a cheaper alternative to prison and a more humane way of administering punishment. Today, an estimated 200,000 Americans wake up with it. While in theory the device allows offenders the opportunity to maintain ties with their families and stay employed as they serve their sentence, the system does not appear to be working as smoothly as it could – either for the monitored or those charged with keeping tabs on their every movement.

“When electronic monitoring first came along it offered great promise,” says Martin Horn, the former commissioner of corrections of New York, “but there is evidence that often times it’s being used to widen the net and place people who would otherwise not have been locked up under more restrictive and intrusive supervision than they need.”

According to James Kilgore, a journalist and author who spent two years under electronic surveillance and now hosts a website dedicated to tracking developments in the field, being tracked electronically is only marginally better than prison. Complaints by the monitored vary from the discomfort of wearing the device and the difficulty of concealing it to being hauled before a judge or parole officer because they briefly went off the grid when they entered a subway or underground tunnel, or simply because the device failed. Others complain of being totally confined to their homes for months on end because of the hassle of getting any movement approved.

When Alexander was granted a retrial in 2013, and was temporarily released from prison with her ankle tagged, she quickly experienced the downside. Within weeks of house arrest, she was back before a judge and threatened with a return to prison because of confusion over whether some shopping trips she made were authorized under her probation conditions.

For parole and probation officers, who have to respond repeatedly to false alarms caused by technical glitches, keeping increasing numbers of offenders under surveillance poses its own problems. An investigation in Wisconsinrevealed that device failure and false alarms were commonplace for many sex offenders who have been condemned to life without parole under surveillance, causing undue stress for them and their parole officers. In October 2010, BI Incorporated, the company that controlled around 30% of the electronic monitoring market, experienced a data overload – its system crashed, causing authorities in 49 states to be unaware of offenders’ movements for nearly 12 hours.

“It’s a shame,” says Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA who has voiced support for electronic monitoring in the past. “It has the potential to be a humane and sensible alternative to prison, but the system simply doesn’t work as it should.” Part of the problem, he says, is that the devices are unnecessarily cumbersome and the technology is obsolete. “With all the advances in GPS tracking, there’s no reason for the constant technical failures,” he adds, “and it should be possible for these devices to be no larger than a fitbit.”

Then there’s the expense, which is mostly picked up by offenders.

For the two years that Alexander will be under house arrest, she will have to pay $105 per week in monitoring fees to the state. This will accumulate to over $10,000 in total, an enormous sum for a single and currently unemployed mother to absorb.

Because Alexander’s case generated so much attention, an online campaign has already raised over $58,000 to help defray these fees and other court costs, but most low-income offenders are not this fortunate. A report issued in 2011 by the Florida senate acknowledge that some individuals would have difficulty paying the fees, but noted that “the willful failure to pay monitoring costs that have not been exempted is grounds for the court to find a violation of the conditions of supervision.” In other words, failure to pay is likely to land a low-income person behind bars, even though their original offense may not have warranted prison time.

Florida is not alone in forcing offenders to absorb the costs associated with electronic monitoring. A 2014 study by NPR found that 49 states imposed fees on offenders. “It should not be this way,” Horn said. “The idea behind electronic monitoring is that it saves the government money by reducing prison populations. As the government is deriving the benefit, it should be the one to absorb the costs.”

Still, some criminal justice experts say that despite the growing concerns, electronic surveillance is unlikely to fall into disuse anytime soon. Nearly 15 years ago, Tony Fabelo, now a research director at the Justice Center, council of state governments, wrote a paper warning against relying too heavily on “techno corrections”. Now, he says, it’s a moot point. “Most of us are walking around with GPS devices in our pockets, which makes arguing for less monitoring something of a non-issue. But that’s all the more reason to get it right.”

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