A recent story in California reports that some 5,000 people with sex offenses have cut off their leg monitors. While law enforcement agencies claim to have rounded up 92% of these people, most within a few days, the situation will no doubt prompt lots of reflection on how to “tighten up” on electronic monitoring. Already one legislator is preparing a bill to send those who cut off their devices straight back to the overcrowded state prison system. This measure comes largely in response to a case where someone on parole with a device did allegedly commit a horrendous murder-rape. While clearly there is a need to prevent such crimes, all too often in the past one serious case such as the famous Willie Horton incident in the 1980s has triggered massive backlash and irrational punitive overreaction.
Tightening up the rules and regulations for electronic monitoring is not the answer. What is required is a serious investigation into the ways in which policies like “exclusion zones” render it virtually impossible for people with sex offense convictions to legally carry out the simple daily tasks of survival-from shopping, to traveling on a bus, to finding a place to live. While people with sex offenses generate little public sympathy, as the test cases for the use of electronic monitoring, the rules and regulations which apply to them are likely to become the model for others. For those interested in a detailed legal analysis of this issue, I recommend an article in the Washington Law Review by Shelly Ross Saxer. She argues that exclusion zones need to be reviewed in light of the need to preserve the basic rights of people with sex offense convictions. Her conclusion is that the present policies amount to banishment, virtually driving people underground where they often become a social and economic burden on already overstretched low income communities. If the Californian authorities intend to expand the use of electronic monitoring, as it appears they are, they should do a thorough investigation of why 5,000 cut off their leg monitors rather than simply assume they have taken this action so they can go on some kind of criminal rampage. People on electronic monitoring need a regime of legal rights as full citizens and residents of communities, not a hybrid version of second class citizen status imported from the previous eras of legalized inequality.