Electronic Monitoring of Abusers Research Paper

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Battered women who appeal to the justice system for help are at heightened risk for abuse. To better protect domestic violence victims during the postcomplaint period, some jurisdictions use electronic monitoring (EM) technology to supervise alleged and convicted batterers and to notify victims when they may be in danger. This technology provides crime control capability through varying degrees of surveillance and tracking of offenders and through alerting devices for victims, law enforcement, and community corrections agencies.


I. Background

II. Research Findings

III. Contact Deterrence

IV. Bilateral Electronic Monitoring as an Alternative to the Battered Women’s Shelter

V. The Temporary Nature of Bilateral Electronic Monitoring

VI. The Role of Human Supervision in Bilateral Electronic Monitoring Programs

VII. Life on the Box: The Controlled Party’s Perspective

VIII. Bilateral Electronic Monitoring for Domestic Violence as Diversion

IX. Conclusion


The criminal justice system’s use of EM (also referred to as ‘‘electronic tagging’’) has grown steadily since its adoption by the courts in the mid- 1980s (Vollum and Hale 2002: 2).EM has traditionally been used as an alternative to incarceration (‘‘house arrest’’), as an intermediate sanction (e.g., as part of intensive probation), or as a condition of release from jail (i.e., as a form of pretrial supervision). EM has historically been deployed in the context of noninterpersonal offenses, including drunk driving and drug- and property-related crimes (Crowe, Sydney, Bancroft, and Lawrence 2002; Vollum and Hale 2002). However, courts have increasingly applied EM in response to interpersonal offenses, including cases involving charges of sexual abuse and domestic violence. When administered in an interpersonal offense context, where one party is controlled or supervised via monitoring and a second party is protected from, or alerted to potentially untoward movement by, a potential abuser, EM is best considered ‘‘bilateral’’ rather than ‘‘unilateral’’ (Erez, Ibarra, and Lurie 2004). Such bilateral programs combine EM associated with home incarceration, originally intended to safeguard the general public, with individuated protection for specific victims named in pending or adjudicated cases (Erez and Ibarra 2006). Here, bilateral electronic monitoring (BEM) is used, not only to enforce liberty restrictions in the absence of traditional detention or incarceration, but also to monitor defendants’ observance of ‘‘exclusion zones’’ around a complaining party’s home, building an ‘‘accountability’’ mechanism into a judge’s orders.

BEM typically operates on one of two technological platforms: radio frequency (RF) and global positioning system (GPS). RF-based BEM programs for domestic violence generally work as follows: As with a traditional ‘‘home detention’’ system, the offender is equipped with a tamper-resistant, ankle-worn transmitter; a receiver in his residence confirms his presence at home during court-ordered curfew hours, logging entry into and exit from the dwelling. Curfew is defined in terms of ‘‘out hours,’’ i.e., the time frame during which the controlled party can be away from home (ordinarily aligned with his work schedule). A second receiver is placed in the protected party’s home; it detects the presence of the offender when he enters a defined radius around the protected party’s house. Radius penetration of a victim’s home region by the transmitter-wearing offender results in an alert to a monitoring facility, which in turn notifies local law enforcement via a high-priority distress category call. The receiver in the victim’s home may be equipped to emit an alert when the offender is detected within range, or the victim may be notified by a pager or cell phone. Having been alerted, the victim is supposed to take protective action, such as moving to a predesignated secure space within the house while awaiting assistance from law enforcement. In the event that she is not at home when the offender breaches the home region, the monitoring facility notifies her of the incident, so that she can stay away from home until the matter is investigated and resolved. The victim may also carry a field-monitoring device synchronized to the offender’s ankle bracelet, alerting her to his approach while she is away from her home receiver, such as occurs during their simultaneous presence at a shopping mall. The defendant is not tracked while away from home, as is the case with GPS-based systems.

GPS-based EM operates on similar monitoring and alerting principles, though it has some additional capabilities: the tracking of offenders in time and space, and the capacity to define multiple zones of exclusion and inclusion, with broader ranges of detection, up to a 2,000-foot radius (Crowe et al. 2002: 67). This results in the ability to monitor the offender in areas beyond his and the victim’s residences and to issue earlier alerts in the event of a radius penetration. In addition, GPS victims are less likely to be burdened with bulky equipment—they are ordinarily equipped with either a cell phone or a pager alone. Indeed, GPS programs can operate without the active participation of victims, since ‘‘geo-zones’’ can be programmed as ‘‘restricted’’ without a protected party’s advance knowledge, and a victim need not be notified of the offender’s breach of an exclusion zone. Instead, and depending on the nature of the breach and type of GPS platform in use, the offender may receive a cellular call from a supervisor alerting him to the geo-zone violation and warning him that he must remove himself from the area immediately, law enforcement may be dispatched to the scene, or the zone breach can be investigated in a follow-up supervisory meeting.

It is important to note that neither EM technology is capable of providing physical protection to the victim. Both monitoring systems can at best provide a warning to the victim (and notification to the police) that the offender is nearby, assuming that he is wearing his assigned transmitter. Thus the equipment will not prevent someone who is determined to hurt a ‘‘protected’’ party and is unconcerned about the personal consequences. Regardless of the technological platform adopted, enrollment in BEM is premised on the offender’s ability to maintain or establish a residence apart from the victim (assuming that the two had been cohabitating before the arrest). Further, there is usually a lethality assessment of some kind that is administered before BEM enrollment will be permitted.

Research Findings

Until recently, most research conducted on the use of BEM in domestic violence cases was conducted largely ‘‘in-house,’’ by agencies pretesting or administering BEM programs, and was not made easily available to other agencies/practitioners or to the scholarly community. An exception is a study of two RF-based BEM programs, reported in Erez, Ibarra, and Lurie (forthcoming) and in an ongoing series of publications and conference presentations, including Erez, Ibarra, and Lurie (2004), Ibarra and Erez (2004), Ibarra and Erez (2005), Ibarra (2005), and Erez and Ibarra (2006). These articles and papers have addressed such issues as the effectiveness of BEM at deterring contact between the two parties, the role of human supervision in BEM programs, the idea that BEM can operate as an alternative to relocation to a battered woman’s shelter, the ways in which the controlled parties view the experience of enrollment, and the ways in which BEM functions as a kind of diversion program.

Contact Deterrence

The courts that were examined in the Erez, Ibarra, and Lurie study (in two jurisdictions in two different Midwestern states, ‘‘River County’’ and ‘‘Lakefront’’) were far likelier to use BEM during the post-arrest/predisposition period than during the sentencing phase. Typically, the stipulation that the arrestee enroll in the BEM program was attached as a condition of his release from jail on bond, although there was some variability by judge and by jurisdiction in how this took place.

BEM is premised on the notion that offenders under ‘‘no contact’’ orders, who know that they cannot approach a certain area without detection, are less likely to attempt to contact a victim, in spite of a history of violating such orders absent EM. According to this view, although some offenders will not be deterred in such circumstances, a sizable portion of batterers is likely to conform to protective orders if they know that they are being monitored electronically. A rationale often cited by court officials for placing offenders on electronic supervision is that it will strengthen protective orders and ‘‘give them teeth’’; that is, restricted parties will take them seriously. The BEM study provides support for this view (Erez et al. 2004). Women participating in the program described how differently the offender had acted in prior cases, before BEM, when he would routinely ignore protective orders (Erez and Ibarra 2006). Victims attributed this contact-free period to the effectiveness of the technology.

Monitoring-facility logs backed up the women’s perceptions. Records kept by River County (which averaged 183 cases per year) indicated that eleven ‘‘radius penetrations’’ were committed by seven persons over a two-year period, most of which were classified by staff as ‘‘informational violations’’ (Erez et al. 2004). These were essentially ‘‘drive-by penetrations’’; the defendant was curious about whether the woman had a male guest at her home, or was testing the sensitivity of the monitoring equipment. These violations were often observed to have been committed while the defendant was intoxicated. Only one of the eleven cases could be classified as overtly hostile. In this case, a ‘‘jealous husband’’ was upset that his wife had a boyfriend at her apartment, for which the husband was still paying rent. After cutting off his anklet without being detected, he showed up at the apartment, broke down the locked door, and threatened to do lethal harm to both the woman and himself. The victim alerted authorities to her erstwhile partner’s presence through the use of her duress pendant, and police in turn responded rapidly. At Lakefront, over a nine-year period, there were no ‘‘intentional’’ violations of the victim’s home radius. ‘‘Incidental’’ penetrations were not considered intentional violations unless they formed part of a pattern, and the staff discerned none.

Certain kinds of contacts are not registered by electronic monitoring technology. For example, encounters at court, telephone calls, contacts by proxy, chance meetings on the street, sent flowers and mail, etc. Although victims were known to make complaints about these contacts to program staff, it is not known whether victims who participate in BEM programs report them at a higher rate than nonparticipating victims. However, it seems likely that victims in BEM programs who do report such contacts will find a more receptive ear, considering that they have already established relationships with program staff, whose duties include offering them support services (Erez and Ibarra 2006).

Face-to-face contact violations were the most common type of non–home-based violations reported by River County victims. There were few serious face-to-face violations reported by victims or program staff. One incident, at Lakefront, involved a ‘‘deranged’’ defendant (charged with stalking) showing up at the workplace of an unrequited former high school crush. Most face-to-face violations were the result of chance meetings in public places, during which the defendant might make a provocative comment to the victim. A common way in which defendants communicated face to face, albeit at a distance, was in the courtroom or in the courthouse hallway. Such communications were usually nonverbal gestures, and in some cases were done in the presence of unaware judges and attorneys (Erez et al., forthcoming).

It should be noted that RF technology does not track victims enrolled in BEM programs. Therefore, if victims try to contact the controlled parties, by telephone or in person at their residence, the surveillance system will be unable to detect it. In fact, both defendants and convicted abusers in the BEM study spoke about having been contacted and sometimes harassed by the victims, typically by telephone, and some mentioned that the women drove by their homes repeatedly, as if to taunt them. Some women admitted driving by the defendants’ homes, claiming that they wanted assurance that he was where he was supposed to be during curfew hours; others admitted to driving past defendants’ homes to check whether their field-monitoring devices were operational. Some defendants claimed that the victims made conjugal visits to their homes, which the victims denied. However, a probation officer, during a surprise home visit, found a protected victim hiding in a defendant’s shower, leading to the latter’s arrest for violating the no-contact order. Finally, some victims stated that they initiated telephone calls to the defendant, but only for some practical reason, such as to make arrangements for a child to be picked up or dropped off. According to these women, an intermediary, such as a friend, family member, or program support staffer, usually placed the call on their behalf (Erez et al., forthcoming).

Bilateral Electronic Monitoring as an Alternative to the Battered Women’s Shelter

BEM provides abused women with an alternative to relocating to a battered women’s shelter in the face of domestic violence. However, the gateway to BEM is through the criminal justice system: As a court-ordered measure, it presumes that a complaint has been filed against a putative abuser. Women who go to shelters need not officially report abuse in order to gain entrance there. BEM may be a viable alternative for women who are reluctant to relocate to a shelter; it allows them to remain in their current living conditions, undisturbed. As a result, they (and, if present, their children) are encouraged to resume a semblance of a ‘‘normal life,’’ without fear of sabotage, and beyond the controlling presence of an abuser, something that most people take for granted but which many domestic violence victims cannot (Erez and Ibarra 2006).

Participation in BEM results in the diminishment of victim invisibility. BEM’s protected parties need not go into seclusion or be secretive about their location. Indeed, because the victim must file a complaint as a prelude to program entrance, she makes herself visible to a broad array of persons whose services she can seek in the event of need. The victim, for example, is not restricted to calling a police dispatcher lacking familiarity with her case, or seeking solace and protection in a personal support network (although women enrolled in BEM report a flowering of their social life during their tenure). She can mobilize a variety of functionaries with personal knowledge of her identity and the intricacies of her abuse history, including the program personnel with whom she develops relations (for an extensive discussion of this and other points related to the idea that BEM offers an alternative to shelter, see Erez and Ibarra 2006).

The Temporary Nature of Bilateral Electronic Monitoring

The BEM study found that participating women grow attached to the services and enhanced sense of personal safety that are associated with being a BEM enrollee, making the transition out of the program anxiety ridden. The temporary nature of BEM, however, is not a limitation unique to this program; it is common for society’s responses to ‘‘social problems’’ to be temporary in nature. Residence in a shelter is temporary, as is an abuser’s lock-up on domestic violence charges. In spite of the limited time that a victim might be in the program, participants feel that the existence of the BEM option should be conveyed to abused women by authorities as well as shelter personnel (Erez and Ibarra 2006).

The Role of Human Supervision in Bilateral Electronic Monitoring Programs

Although the nature of EM technology is important in that its capacities and limitations will circumscribe its reach and application, of greater significance is the program in which the technology is anchored. The program sets eligibility rules, defines expectations for participants’ conduct while they are enrolled in the program, and directs how program personnel interact with participants and enforce program expectations. BEM programs can also be influenced to varying degrees by the research literature on domestic violence and the notion that BEM might be a type of intervention in an abusive interpersonal relationship (Ibarra 2005).

For example, one of the sites in the BEM study (River County) drew its cases from parties who were both in current and former relationships, while the second site (Lakefront) almost exclusively referred only parties whose relationship had undergone an irrevocable breach. Lakefront personnel went to great lengths to be certain that the victim wanted nothing to do with the defendant before ordering the equipment’s installation, while River County personnel saw much merit in ordering the equipment precisely when the victim was ambivalent about her relationship with the defendant. Because the River County program enrolled many participants whose lives were still enmeshed with one another, emotionally, materially, and socially, program personnel approached interactions with male participants with a concern to detect ‘‘risk factors’’ in their living environments that might incline them to seek contact with the victim, and sought frequent encounters with them (e.g., through office and home visits) in order to gauge the presence of ‘‘red flags’’ indicative of elevated danger to the victim. Furthermore, the River County program was far more onerous in the imposition of liberty restrictions on male participants (Ibarra 2005). For instance, River County required defendants to make weekly office visits during which urine screens were administered, and to submit to surprise home visits. Lakefront did not have such rules and policies in place, deeming them too intrusive or burdensome for nonconvicted persons. Similarly, River County more strictly limited ‘‘out hours’’ to work and travel time, and required advance notice of up to one week for deviations from agreed-upon schedules. Lakefront was more flexible in setting curfews and had a ‘‘hands off’’ attitude toward defendants’ whereabouts while they were not working, provided they returned home before 11 p.m.

Life on the Box: The Controlled Party’s Perspective

Differences in the intensity of supervision appear to be the most salient experiential dimension for the men who participate in BEM programs as controlled parties (Ibarra and Erez 2004). Men participating in the more intensively structured River County program, for example, expressed anger and resentment about the ‘‘pains’’ associated with BEM (cf. Payne and Gainey 1998). Citing their status as defendants, they reported feeling that they were being treated as if they had been found guilty without trial and were now living under a demoralizing and unjust regime. Their lives were more transparent; their everyday practices open to scrutiny, correction, and sanction. River County men reported having been ‘‘tricked’’ into consenting to enroll, because the extent of supervision had not been explained to them beforehand. Lakefront men, the overwhelming majority of whom were also defendants at the time of their enrollments, did not voice these criticisms or concerns. Instead, for the latter, BEM was more of an inconvenience rather than an injustice, notwithstanding the fact that they were required to subsidize the cost of administering the program by way of a weekly fee and that they were required to participate in BEM in order to be released on bond (Ibarra and Erez 2004).

Bilateral Electronic Monitoring for Domestic Violence as Diversion

Diversion programs attempt to meet several goals: providing services and assistance to violators, minimizing ‘‘unnecessary’’ social control, reducing recidivism, and decreasing the cost of justice administration. The use of BEM for domestic violence cases addresses these aims but also manifests a criticism often made of diversion. In particular, there is support for the idea that BEM exhibits the kind of ‘‘net widening’’ that critics have observed with other forms of diversion (Ibarra and Erez 2005). Net widening refers to the idea that alternatives to penal strategies represent an extension of penal control by the criminal justice system over civil society (Austin and Krisberg 1981; McMahon 1990). Netwidening occurs: (1) when people are brought into the system who would have otherwise exited it if not for the existence of a diversion program, (2) through the creation of new agencies and services that effectively supplement rather than replace the original set of control mechanisms, and (3) by the creation of diversionary programs that are more intrusive than would have been entailed by the justice system’s ordinary handling of such cases.

Net widening is pertinent because domestic violence cases usually have high nonprosecution and dismissal rates relative to other violent offenses (Fagan 1995). The net-widening thesis would suggest that BEM participants are likelier to become enmeshed in criminal justice processing than nonparticipants. For example, although all domestic violence arrestees are arraigned prior to release, only some will end up on BEM, and these will tend to have a different experience with the criminal justice system upon release, owing to the greater transparency of their lives during the post-arrest period and the interest that the prosecution will take in their cases (Ibarra and Erez 2005).

Administrative data analyzed by Ibarra and Erez (2005) support the net-widening thesis. Dismissal rates for BEM participants with pending cases (i.e., defendants) over a two-year period are significantly lower for BEM than for non-BEM participants. The average number of days that BEM participants spend in the program is higher (mean = 48, median = 29) compared with the number of days that non-BEM participants spend in jail (mean = 30, median = 20). BEM participants’ cases are likelier to last longer and culminate in verdict-based dispositions. These trends are contrary to the underlying premise of diversion: to divert offenders away from deeper or more extensive engagement with the system. The lower dismissal rates for BEM participants apparently reflect the continued participation of the prosecuting witnesses in the cases, which in turn results in defendants seeking continuances, either to build stronger defenses or to wear down complainants’ resolve to remain involved with prosecution efforts.


BEM addresses longstanding concerns about the safety of domestic violence victims during a volatile period in an abusive relationship. When used in pretrial circumstances, it appears to direct participants on a course that is likelier to result in a verdict-based disposition, rather than toward the dismissal of the case, which is likelier with non- BEM defendants. BEM programs have the potential to empower victims who participate in them but also to result in arrestees who feel demoralized by the restrictions and supervision. The crafting of BEM programs is likely to continue to change, with the development of new technological capabilities, evolving concerns about the legal liabilities of jurisdictions that implement it, and as new categories of offenders continue to be brought under its purview. For example, questions about whether it is more or differently effective to administer BEM for post–separation-phase parties than for pre–separation-phase parties, or vice versa, and whether varying technological platforms should be used for parties in varying relationship phases also need to be addressed by future research. Similarly, future research might investigate agencies that are implementing BEM in conjunction with batterer intervention programs, as an alternative to incarceration, and with varying degrees of supervision and program restrictions.

See also:


  1. Austin, J., and B. Krisberg. ‘‘Wider, Stronger, and Different Nets: The Dialectics of Criminal Justice Reform.’’ Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 18 (1981): 165–196.
  2. Crowe, A. H., L. Sydney, P. Bancroft, and B. Lawrence. Offender Supervision with Electronic Technology. Lexington, KY: American Probation and Parole Association, 2002.
  3. Erez, E., and P. R. Ibarra. ‘‘Making Your Home a Shelter: Electronic Monitoring and Victim Re-Entry in Domestic Violence Cases.’’ British Journal of Criminology (June 12, 2006). http://bjc.oxfordjournals.org/content/47/1/100.abstract (accessed August 25, 2013).
  4. Erez, E., P. R. Ibarra, and N. A. Lurie. ‘‘Applying Electronic Monitoring to Domestic Violence Cases: A Study of Two Bilateral Programs.’’ Federal Probation (2004): 15–20.
  5. ———. The Electronic Monitoring of Domestic Violence Cases: A Study of Two RF-based Programs. Report submitted to the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC, forthcoming.
  6. Fagan, J. ‘‘The Criminalization of Domestic Violence: Promises and Limits,’’ 1995. NIJ Research Report https://www.ncjrs.gov/txtfiles/crimdom.txt (accessed August 25, 2013).
  7. Ibarra, P. R. ‘‘Red Flags and Trigger Control: The Role of Human Supervision in an Electronic Monitoring Program.’’ Sociology of Crime, Law, and Deviance 6 (2005): 31–48.
  8. Ibarra, P. R., and E. Erez. ‘‘Life on the Box: Electronic Monitoring and the Refashioning of Everyday Life.’’ Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Society of Criminology, Nashville, TN, 2004.
  9. ———. ‘‘Victim-Centric Diversion? The Electronic Monitoring of Domestic Violence Cases.’’ Behavioral Sciences and the Law 23, no. 2 (2005): 259–276.
  10. McMahon, M. ‘‘‘Net Widening’: Vagaries in the Use of a Concept.’’ British Journal of Criminology 30 (1990): 121–149.
  11. Payne, B. K., and R. R. Gainey. ‘‘A Qualitative Assessment of the Pains Experienced on Electronic Monitoring.’’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 42 (1998): 149–163.
  12. Vollum, S., and C. Hale. ‘‘Electronic Monitoring: A Research Review.’’ Corrections Compendium 27 (2002): 1–26.

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