Bay Area resident William Edwards was pulled over while driving an acquaintance’s car in Alameda County, California in November 2016.
When the police found a gun in the glove compartment and drugs in the car, Edwards was arrested.
Because he suffers from a life-threatening chronic illness, Edwards, who worked at the time as a clerk at the Contra Costa County’s public defender’s office, was released from custody to await trial on the condition that he wear an electronic ankle shackle to monitor his whereabouts.
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Until charges were dropped a few months later, Edwards wore the monitoring equipment at a cost of almost $26 a day, nearly 20 percent of his income, which he paid to a private company that holds the contract with Alameda County. The company, Leaders in Community Alternatives, opposed his efforts to reduce the fees and threatened him with jail if he failed to make the payments.
Those details are included in a class-action lawsuit filed recently by the Washington organization Equal Justice Under Law on behalf of Edwards and three others against both the firm and Alameda County. The suit contends that the firm extorts payments from impoverished defendants on electronic monitoring and that the county permits the practice.
The suit comes at a time when the use of electronic monitoring as an alternative to incarceration and pretrial detention has drastically increased in the United States. The number of active electronic monitoring devices increased by 140 percent between 2005 and 2015, according to a Pew Research Center study.
That increase has generated a debate over whether electronic monitoring is a valuable way to reduce jail populations and give those awaiting trial the chance to be at home, or an oppressive system that is costly and confining to many defendants. The electronic monitoring market is dominated by a few large corporations that profit from the system, opponents note.
According to the contract it signed with the county in 2013, LCA—a subsidiary of global company SuperCom—is authorized to provide electronic monitoring and case management services to adults referred by the court or probation department. The county does not pay the firm, which recovers its costs by charging those assigned to the program. James Kilgore, a research scholar at the Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign who has done extensive research on electronic monitoring nationwide, says such arrangements are uncommon.
“There’s definitely a national trend towards charging fees,” Kilgore said. “The special problem with that LCA contract is the fact that it was essentially a no-cash contract. In most cases there’s some payment made by the counties to the company.”
“It’s companies like this that take advantage of you, they know that if I don’t pay this there’s a chance I can go to jail,” said James Brooks, another of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, in an interview. “They take advantage of your desperation.”
Brooks, a longshoreman living in Berkeley, took the option to serve his sentence on electronic monitoring after a DUI conviction so that he could continue as primary caregiver for his sick mother. He said he struggled to make the payments, fearing he otherwise would be incarcerated.
The lawsuit contends LCA fails to notify defendants of their right to contest the fee amount before a judge.
“It’s really a sham process,” said Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law.
A representative for LCA declined to comment on the suit.
The suit also names Alameda County, Presiding Judge Wynne Carvill, and Chief Probation Officer Wendy Still as defendants.
The Alameda County probation department declined to comment on pending litigation and chief officer Wendy Still was unavailable. Officials at the Alameda County Superior Court did not respond to requests for comment.
“Our goal is to end this injustice wherever it happens,” said Telfeyan. “Our clients in Alameda County have exposed the problem in Oakland but it’s happening elsewhere and we plan to fight it everywhere we see it.”
Olivia Stovicek contributed reporting.